London·Video

'Pandemic ventilator' could offer solution in potential 'worst case' coronavirus scenario

As health authorities urge Canadians to 'help flatten the curve,' a London man says he might have the solution should a large number of people fall critically ill with the respiratory condition known as COVID-19.

With only 5,000 ventilators spread across 286 hospitals, the device could be made cheaply and easily

John Strupat holds the prototype of the 'pandemic ventilator,' a device that can deliver life support at a fraction of the cost of a conventional hospital ventilator. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

John Strupat admits, the prototype sitting on his dining room table doesn't look like much, but the "pandemic ventilator" as he calls it, could save your life. 

He turns a knob and as quickly as the device begins to purr, the air gauge on an artificial lung its connected to rises and falls with the robotic precision of someone breathing with the assistance of a machine. 

"Without something to provide basic ventilation to someone who needs it, there's nothing left for them," he said. "That's it."

It's a fact that health-care workers are all too familiar with as the world grapples with the alarming spread of the coronavirus, a respiratory illness that Wednesday was declared a pandemic as it continued its relentless march across the globe, threatening to overwhelm hospitals and push the healthcare systems of more than 100 countries to their limits. 

Ontario has 209 stockpiled ventilators, 'that's not enough'

John Strupat is a retired respiratory therapist who lives in London, Ont. He now runs a small business, testing and building oxygen equipment for paramedic services across Ontario. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Here in Canada, health officials are urging the public to help slow down the spread of the disease in order to avoid what's taking place in Italy, where hospitals are running short of beds and ventilators as hundreds of critically ill people inundate the country's healthcare system. 

A 2009 survey of the country's ICUs and emergency medical equipment revealed Canada has about 5,000 ventilators spread out across 286 hospitals. 

In Ontario, a 2014 survey showed the province has a stockpile of 209 critical care ventilators, but Strupat, a retired respiratory therapist, said that's not enough for what a pandemic could bring. 

"In Ontario, we have about 210 ventilators set aside and I think 40 of them are for children and babies," he said. "That doesn't match at all the numbers that are thrown out for a pandemic. That's not enough."

In Italy, a country that's been hit hard by the coronavirus, medical officials have said that about one in 10 patients who has COVID-19 requires some kind of intensive care.

"Those are really large numbers. If you take one per cent of the United States, for example, that's 3.5 million people, 3.5 million extra people in hospitals."

Ventilators could be in high demand

John Strupat shows his pandemic ventilator prototype in action 1:29

It means ventilators would be in high demand, which is why Strupat dusted off his old prototype, designed to be cheaper and easier to manufacture and operate than a conventional ventilator. 

"We're talking about a device that we want to have available in the worst case conditions and strangely enough, COVID-19 is not the worst case envisioned," he said. 

When Strupat first developed the device, it was for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In 2007, the agency was looking for a life support device that could run on batteries and be deployed cheaply and effectively in a potential mass casualty situation. 

"It was their effort to prepare for a really desperate event in the United States. So that could be nuclear war, a chemical attack or a biological attack."

Strupat said the coronavirus pandemic is not that far off. 

"It all has the same end result, you have an overload at hospitals with people who are sick and require medical care."

The proposal never really worked out and Strupat never produced his device for the Americans, but he didn't give up. In 2009, with the help of a biochemist, he retooled the design and entered the "pandemic ventilator" into a contest for medical devices at York University. It won third prize. 

"First prize was a treatment for cancer, second prize was a diagnostic tool for cancer, so I'd say we did pretty well in that," he said.  

Life-saving device can be built for as little as $500 a unit

The pandemic ventilator prototype, seen here, was originally developed in response to a request by U.S. officials for a life support device that could assist in a mass casualty situation. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Strupat said that while a conventional ventilator found in a hospital costs about $25,000 for one unit, his design would cost about $500 a unit and with a couple of modifications, could be mass-produced quickly and easily. 

The only caveat is the standard of care. While the standard for a conventional ventilator uses a mask or nose tubes and follows current guidelines, the pandemic ventilator is at a standard from the 1970s and requires a patient be intubated, the medical word used to describe putting a tube through someone's mouth and into their airway. 

"[It's] still a primitive device compared to a modern ventilator, but a device that's capable of basic life support," he said. "In a pandemic, who cares?"

One Italian doctor battling the coronavirus outbreak in his country compared the value of having ventilators to gold, but that's not what Strupat said he's after. 

If anyone interested mass producing the pandemic ventilator, they're welcome to it, he said. 

"Someone can buy me a coffee if they want. It's a freebie. It would be great if it can help with something." 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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