Researchers develop emergency ventilator based on resuscitation bags used in ambulances

Darrell Etherington

The need for innovative solutions to address shortages in crucial medical equipment is greater than ever, and a new initiative from a global team of biomedical engineering experts is a perfect example. The team developed a way for resuscitation bags – common pieces of equipment carried by ambulances and paramedics around the world, and typically in strong supply at hospitals – to be repurposed as emergency ventilator hardware.

Georgia Tech and Emory University biomedical engineering professor Susan Margulies, who is an expert in ventilator-associated lung injuries, said in a press release that while it is "heartwarming" to see US manufacturers open-source designs of existing FDA-approved fit-for-purpose ventilators, there's a need still for a "simple, low-cost design" that can boost the numbers of usable equipment without requiring a manufacturing line spinning up.

The device developed by the group of researchers adapts what's called a "bag-valve-mask" or BVM for short, resulting in a piece of hardware the can simultaneously work for two patients at the same time. It can be made from stock sheet metal components and plastic gears, and works with common wall adapters or 12-volt car batteries for power sources, making them flexible for use in either permanent care facilities or temporary field hospitals.

Basically, the modification works by squeezing the bags automatically and mechanically, whereas they'd normally be squeezed manually by a paramedic to revive a patient. The mechanized squeezing can continue for days, turning them into a workable (if emergency use only) ventilator for continuous care for COVID-19 patients, when no other ventilator hardware is available.

This design is the result of a collaboration between Cranfield University in the UK, as well as Georgia Tech and Emory University. It's already been prototyped, tested, and iterated upon, and the team behind the concept is now working to move the design to broader manufacturing in partnership with the Emory University Office of Technology.

The potential of this design is significant in areas where access to resources and modern manufacturing equipment/supply sources for ventilators and other, more complex solutions being developed aren't as abundant. That's been flagged as a huge areas of concern by the World Health Organization, as the COVID-19 pandemic has hit developed countries hard, overtaxing even their advanced and well-resourced healthcare systems. Other nations with less mature health systems and fewer resources available to frontline care workers will need alternative solutions to address the crisis.