NASA’s cheap, simple ventilator just got emergency approval from the FDA. It could prevent shortages in a 2nd wave of COVID-19 cases.

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Some of the dozens of engineers involved in creating a ventilator prototype specially targeted to coronavirus disease patients at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA engineers have designed a mass-producible, low-cost ventilator tailored to coronavirus patients. The Food and Drug Administration granted it emergency approval on Thursday.

A team of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, designed and built the ventilator in just 37 days. The device is called VITAL – an acronym for Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally. It uses one-seventh the number of parts required for a conventional ventilator, which makes it easier to mass-produce quickly.

NASA administrators said they would offer a free licence to help get the device into hospitals faster. This could help emergency-response departments prepare for future influxes of COVID-19 patients, which experts expect to see once lockdowns across the country begin to lift.

“Intensive-care units are seeing COVID-19 patients who require highly dynamic ventilators,” Dr. J.D. Polk, NASA’s chief health and medical officer, said in a press release last week. “The intention with VITAL is to decrease the likelihood patients will get to that advanced stage of the disease and require more advanced ventilator assistance.”

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VITAL (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally) is a new high-pressure ventilator developed by NASA and tailored to treat coronavirus patients. It received emergency approval from the FDA on April 30, 2020. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine praised the agency’s invention in a statement on Thursday.

“This ventilator is one of countless examples of how taxpayer investments in space exploration – the skills, expertise and knowledge collected over decades of pushing boundaries and achieving firsts for humanity – translate into advancements that improve life on Earth,” he said.

NASA improvised parts to avoid supply-chain issues

To avoid disrupting the supply chain for conventional ventilators, which have already been in short supply, NASA’s engineers opted for a design that requires fewer parts than a conventional ventilator and relies on different machinery.

“They’re really parts from other industries that can be used with this application,” Dave Gallagher, a JPL associate director who worked with the team, said in a press call on April 23.

The hope is that manufacturers could produce the device without detracting from the production of conventional ventilators.

“They’re not parts that you would normally necessarily use in building up a ventilator,” Polk said in the briefing. “There’s close to 700 parts out there that we’re not using and not having to compete with the supply chain.”

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VITAL uses parts borrowed from other industries. NASA/JPL-Caltech

VITAL’s minimalist design also means the device “can be modified for use in field hospitals being set up in convention centres, hotels and other high-capacity facilities across the country,”NASA said.

The FDA emergency use authorization came a week after experts tested a prototype of the ventilator at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, where the school’s Human Simulation Lab simulated a range of patient conditions.

Though officials did not offer an exact cost for producing the ventilator, Gallagher estimated that it would be roughly $US2,000 to $US3,000. For comparison, General Motors is producing low-cost, conventional ventilators for the national stockpile at more than $US16,000 apiece.

However, NASA’s ventilators are only designed to last three to four months, compared to the years-long lifespan of current hospital ventilators.

Preventing ventilator shortages in the next waves of COVID-19

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Doctors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City after testing NASA’s ventilator prototype. Human Simulation Lab at the Ichan School of Medicine, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York

Though some cities, counties, and states across the US seem to have passed the peaks of their first waves of coronavirus cases, experts expect COVID-19 to remain a problem until a vaccine is approved. As local governments loosen restrictions, business open, and people start to mingle again, the virus will spread.Experts say that will bring new waves of infection, which can get out of control if they aren’t closely monitored and cut short with additional lockdowns.

Any place where these subsequent waves of infection overwhelm local hospitals could see ventilator shortages.

That’s what almost happened in New York City in late March and early April. In Italy, ventilator shortages got so bad that doctors described excruciating decisions about which patients to prioritise for the treatment.

“The one horrific decision I never want to have to make is who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t,” Dr. Hooman Poor, a physician at Mount Sinai, previously told Business Insider. “That’s a horrifying situation.”

If NASA’s new device can be widely produced and distributed across the globe – still two big ifs – it could prevent that situation from arising again.

“It’s a crazy project,” Michelle Easter, an engineer on the JPL team that designed the ventilator, said in a NASA video. “We have the potential to save human lives, people that we might know, our neighbours, our families.”

Yeji Jesse Lee contributed reporting.