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The ventilator has been a vital piece of medical machinery in treating some of the most severe COVID-19 patients. But the devices were hard to come by and expensive at the beginning of the pandemic, prompting a group of residents at Massachusetts General Hospital to start the CoVent-19 Challenge to design a cheaper, easy-to-assemble model. John Yang reports on the innovative ideas it inspired.
The pandemic is forcing innovation.
John Yang explores a competition to make better ventilators.
It's part of our Breakthroughs series covering invention.
Why don't we bring you — I will bring a computer over, and they can give you a tour of the machine as it stands?
This is how a team of Maine high school students and recent graduates came up with a ventilator design during the pandemic: a shaky video conference.
Well, it's just a very easy way to hit, and use actual water.
Baxter Academy engineering teacher Johnny Amory assembled the team, including 15-year-old sophomore Emily Mickool.
Amory gave us a list of resources, and told us to learn as much about ventilators as we could.
We were thinking about what kind of ventilators could be built, you know, distributed.
So, we had to have kits, so that they could be sent to people. So we designed a ventilator that could be put together with about four hand tools, two crescent wrenches, an Allen key set, and a screwdriver.
They're part of the CoVent-19 challenge, a global virtual competition to design ventilators that can be built quickly and cheaply with readily available components.
In the early days of the COVID pandemic, there were fears, largely unrealized so far for a variety of reasons, that U.S. hospitals would run out of ventilators.
Gov. Jay Inslee:
We're searching the globe for additional ventilators.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo:
You cannot find them. Every state is trying to get them. Other countries are trying to get them.
Dr. Richard Boyer, an anesthesiology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, thought up the CoVent-19 challenge in March while self-isolating with his wife, Emily, after he was exposed to a coronavirus patient.
I got a little bored, and I…
Emily Blatter Boyer:
He got bored on day three.
So, you know, it didn't take that long.
I used to be a medical device designer, and I use ventilators every day. So, when I started learning about the ventilator shortages, it became very natural to me to want to work on the engineering side of this issue.
Emily, who works in education, is head of operations, organizing the more than 20 MGH residents running the competition.
All of the residents were taking on roles and responsibilities that are not part of being a doctor. So, we have one person who's managing our social media, the other person who's managing the Web site, also doing it without the ability of being in the same room.
There were 213 entries from more than 40 countries. A team of medical and technical experts selected seven finalists, one of them a small team in Scotland led by Ross Hunter.
I did not expect to be a finalist. It was truly a surprise.
Hunter, CEO of a company that makes luxury eco-accommodations, based this design on a pet project he's been tinkering with for years, a commercial coffee machine.
I actually already had a coffee machine prototype, and instead of water, started putting air into it, and, you know, I didn't know what to expect, but it looked like promising results from there. So that then led me on to the quest to make a ventilator out of a coffee machine, effectively.
That kind of outside-the-box thinking was key for another finalist:, the students at Baxter Academy, a public charter school in Portland, Maine.
We didn't have this preconceived notion of what a ventilator should look like. My teacher Amory talks a lot about group think.
Our brain gets stuck on the idea of what we want to do, before we start exploring something that could potentially be a better option.
And the key to open innovation, I think, is having people that don't come from your field apply their insights.
The group that you mentioned from Scotland that created their ventilator from what was initially a coffee maker, I don't imagine that an anesthesiologist or a typical medical device company would ever have looked at that design. But, here, he's developed a design that's very feasible as a safe ventilator and very economical.
All the entered designs are free for anyone to download, in hopes they help developing countries where ventilators are in short supply.
As the medical community gains experience with COVID-19, some physicians have begun using ventilators less often in certain types of cases, but the devices remain a key part of treatment.
There is no other way to ventilate these patients safely, other than with a ventilator. And they are critical parts of our ICU.
Ventilators used in U.S. hospitals can cost between $20,000 to $50,000, and the federal government is spending an average of $15,000 each to add about 200,000 ventilators to the national stockpile.
The cost of these designs?
The ventilator that we have now, we built for about $2,500. And that includes the price of a 3-D printer that you would use to print off some of the parts.
Very cost-effective. I mean, the materials for the parts behind me, it's less than $700.
The CoVent-19 challenge presented challenges to learn from.
My knowledge of ventilators was zero at the beginning of this. And it's been one of the sharpest learning curves I have ever encountered in my life.
I have — literally, nights and days were spent reading up on medical journals, finding out about how these work, why these work.
So, what is interesting is, a lot of the things that were stumbling blocks, I think, led to better design overall. For example, we have a low-pressure regulator that drops the pressure down, and that was delayed in terms of getting to us.
So we were using a scuba — you know, a $25 scuba regulator that you can buy at any dive shop.
And it also served to inspire.
We're dealing with so much distress in the world, from economic stress, from political and social stress, from obviously our — the stress on our health care system and people losing loved ones every day.
For people to commit themselves to — so much to something, to a goal, and to see it come to fruition is incredibly inspiring.
We were doing our presentation, and I was thinking they have heard rocket engineers and Ph.D candidates speaking.
And I'm a 15-year-old. I, like, just learned how to start driving a car.
I try not to think of it as, like, we're pitted against each other, but being in the same collaborative space as those voices is a really great opportunity.
And even if neither of these teams is the winner announced on Wednesday, they have already gained and given so much.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.
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John Yang is the anchor of PBS News Weekend and a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
Lorna Baldwin is an Emmy and Peabody award winning producer at the PBS NewsHour. In her two decades at the NewsHour, Baldwin has crisscrossed the US reporting on issues ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to tsunami preparedness in the Pacific Northwest to the politics of poverty on the campaign trail in North Carolina. Farther afield, Baldwin reported on the problem of sea turtle nest poaching in Costa Rica, the distinctive architecture of Rotterdam, the Netherlands and world renowned landscape artist, Piet Oudolf.
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