Science

Inspiring acts of solidarity in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hold sway over our day-to-day lives and forces us to retreat into the shelter of our homes, we tend to forget about the harsh realities of the health care workers around the world who are out on the frontlines, battling the virus head-on.

The direness of their situation cannot be overstated as they are suffering from a critical shortage of supplies. Reserves of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as protective masks and glasses, in particular, are dwindling at an alarming rate. This has forced many health care professionals to resort to reusing masks, raiding hardware stores and even use bandanas or scarves as a surrogate for personal protection.


They are desperately calling out for help on social media platforms. And, thankfully, they have received it: Engineers, doctors, and even high school students from countries across the globe have rushed to the aid of distressed healthcare workers.


And through technology, no less.

How are they doing it?

These innovators are using methods such as 3D printers and laser cutters to create innovative alternative protective equipment to assist overwhelmed and underequipped healthcare workers the world over. And many of them are coordinating their efforts on the messaging service Slack. They are also crowdsourcing designs for masks, face shields and even ventilators that can be reproduced around the world.

Once these designs have been converted into prototypes and pretested for safety, they are then tested in the field by nurses and doctors. And several engineers at universities in the U.S. are even working with open-source designs on the internet to develop these new products. And because the need has grown so rapidly, they have looked into ways to expand production, which put them in contact with mass manufacturers. These manufacturers, in turn, have swiftly replicated the designs of the university engineers and have gotten them into the hands of thousands of doctors. 


And, of course, one cannot talk about medical supplies in these desperate times without mentioning the N95 type face masks with antimicrobial filters. And unfortunately, despite China’s best efforts to distribute them overseas, they are quickly running out as well. But, luckily, innovators have risen to this challenge as well and have created professional grade alternatives that can also be easily mass-produced. They are also developing prototypes of quality alternatives for respirators that help patients breathe, of which stocks are also starting to run low the world over.

Large innovators are helping too

Governments around the world are also asking businesses to repurpose their production lines and supply chains to produce equipment that can be used in the medical field and this is also yielding results. An inspiring story that dovetails into these innovation efforts occurred in Europe, where an Italian doctor, an Italian 3D printing company and a French sports retailer worked together to save lives as the COVID-19 virus raged through Italy..

The story goes as follows:

The French sports retailer Decathlon had developed and put on the market an advanced snorkeling mask called the Easybreath mask. In the midst of the COVID-19 calamity in Italy, an Italian doctor had the brilliant idea that these masks could potentially be adapted for use in critical care wards in hospitals, where the staff was critically shorthanded while being overloaded with patients. 

This doctor got in touch with the Italian 3D printing company Isinnova, which then got in touch with Decathlon. Decathlon subsequently supplied digital design files of the masks to Isinnova and they were able to quickly use their 3D printing technology to create a valve that enabled a connection between the mask and a traditional hospital respirator. It has been reported that 500 patients are now receiving treatment while using these altered masks. Patients that would have died otherwise.

The bigger picture

But while it is reassuring that innovators both small and large are nobly contributing to the cause of assisting healthcare workers at this pivotal juncture in global history, it still remains unlikely that they will be able to meet the mountainous demands of global health systems.  

In the U.S. alone, it has been estimated that as many as 960,000 people infected with COVID-19 will soon need to make use of ventilators. The number of ventilators currently available? Approximately 200,000.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to forge its path around the world, the lack of vital equipment for doctors and nurses to save lives and protect themselves to continue to do so will continue to come into sharper focus. But while the ad-hoc solutions of the innovators do not solve all their shortage problems, it is better to have an alternative than nothing at all should the well run dry.