As we move rapidly into uncharted territory, with every day bringing fresh challenges, most of us are only too aware that if the COVID-19 epidemic reaches predicted levels of people needing hospitalisation, the NHS will not only struggle with staff, but also essential equipment such as ventilator parts, masks and other critical equipment.
But the tech community may be able to help….
The University of East Anglia (UEA) is looking for tech companies, and other ancillary support, to help design and make critical equipment needed by the NHS, using 3D print technology.
The university team, lead by Dr Aram Saeed from UEA’s School of Pharmacy, is working with the tech community to access 3D printers, as well people with the necessary skills to work at pace to design and make equipment.
The team are looking to collaborate with people with software skills – particularly Solidworks for CAD design, and those trained in 3D scanners and conversion of files to STIL files (printable version).
They are also looking for printers – specifically Fused Deposition Modeling (FMD), that uses thermoplastic filaments, brands Makerbot or similar, and SLA types printers which use liquid resins.
The scope of the project may move into re-purposing or reconfiguring existing ventilators, rapidly developing new ventilators and producing other medical supplies such as PEEP valves and face shields.
The team may also need support from engineering sectors for flow sensors, pneumatic units and data processing monitors.
People with high level project management skills will also be required and, not surprisingly, they will also be looking for funding support.
By working with healthcare professionals to understand their needs and calling on those with appropriate skills to support the project, UEA is hoping to mobilise similar projects at other universities nationally and globally.
Project lead Dr Aram Saeed, said:
It is absolutely vital that universities join forces with healthcare providers and businesses to find creative solutions to fight Covid-19.
We need shortcuts to speed up the process of designing and developing key ventilator parts, and we hope to connect with other universities and expertise around the globe.
It’s still very early days for this project, but the response so far has been amazing. It is very much a steep learning curve, but we have a fantastic team of researchers and PhD students working on this, and we will be using our academic networks to help solve the problem.
Prof Ben Garrod, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences and who is also involved with the effort, said:
We are in an unprecedented time in modern history and in facing such an unprecedented challenge, we need to respond with an unprecedented response, collaboration and effort.
In the days, weeks and months ahead, our amazing NHS and its frontline staff are going to need all the help they can get and universities are in a very fortunate position in having the people, expertise and technology to be able to assist.
The work being done here at UEA and across the Norwich Research Park will help provide supplies and equipment at a local and national level, but we need help. We need help from businesses, other universities, individuals and so many others right now and already the response has been amazing. Printing off ventilator components, specialist masks and other equipment will, I’m sure, help those frontline NHS staff save lives across the country in the time ahead.
The team are already collaborating with SyncNorwich (the local tech community) and the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
The initiative is one of many being undertaken at UEA to help the NHS in their fight against the new coronavirus.
Dr Justin O’Grady, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, is pioneering a portable coronavirus kit which could be rolled out to test NHS staff in weeks. The test would provide a result, displayed on a smartphone, in just 50 minutes after taking a throat swab.
Meanwhile technicians at UEA’s New Science Building have been using the facilities to make hand sanitiser gel, and they have already begun distribution to the NHS in Norfolk and beyond.
Mark Hitchcock, of UEA Health and Social Care Partners, said:
We have been working with hospitals and trusts across the region. Those relationships have never been so important as we have released academic clinicians to support the NHS, worked closely to understand the medical needs that COVID-19 raises and then mobilised teams from across the university, Norwich Research Park and beyond to work on solutions.
Prof Fiona Lettice, UEA’s Pro-Vice Chancellor Research and Innovation, said:
After the initial task of quickly moving a university to remote working, learning and teaching, and postponing all but essential research within laboratories, the amazing research and innovation community at UEA has turned its skills and expertise, to help us face this challenge and crisis.
We have leveraged our academic and business partnerships to work together tirelessly this weekend to help our NHS colleagues and the patients they will need to treat. There is much still to be done, but we are committed to do all we can to help.