Faced with huge shortages of ventilators, medically safe masks and hand sanitisers, the world is now coming together to make a plan to address this.
Companies which usually do not produce these kinds of products – but have the equipment, materials and the know-how – are stepping up and making a difference. Some companies are making the actual items, while others are providing materials or parts to those that usually make them, helping to provide on a large scale and with speed; a number of corporations are even allowing free use of their intellectual property, enabling others to make their products for their own countries
This is all unprecedented, of course, and there was some concern over what exactly is to be done with some of these wares once the pandemic is over – although that admittedly has taken a backseat now as the virus tears across the world. Many within the epidemiology field, however, warn that this is not the last pandemic we will face, and that what’s being produced now are items that might very well be needed again in the future.
And however important the preventative measures of self-isolation, social distancing and handwashing may be (and they are very), our medical professionals are without a doubt key to treating this virus. They are working under the most enormous amount of pressure, both physically and mentally, and therefore it is essential they are fully protected and are able to give the best medical care they can. Furthermore, the terrible weight of having to choose who gets potentially life-saving treatment and who doesn’t because of a shortage of equipment will hopefully be lifted in the next few months.
As an alternative to ‘invasive’ ventilators, which see one sedated and intubated and which need to be reserved for the critically ill, breathing aid devices are being made by an interesting array of companies. These continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines negate the need for a patient’s sedation and provide a flow of oxygen to the lungs, helping to keep patients out of ICU. Reports from Italy show that up to 50% of patients have avoided having to be put on an invasive ventilator when these CPAP devices were used.
Airplane companies like Boeing, car producers like Ford and General Motors, power supplier General Electric and Richard Branson’s Virgin are some of the unusual entities who have stepped up to produce breathing aids and ventilators. According to Theverge.com, Ford has announced it will manufacture ventilators for General Electric’s health care division, which has licensed a design that does not need electricity (we hope South Africa can be recipients too and be licensed to make our own) from a company called Airon. It has already been passed by the Food And Drug Administration, which means no lengthy testing and approval periods. Ford hopes to build 1 500 the end of April, 12 000 by the end of May and 50 000 by July. The aim is to produce 30 000 a month. Ford is also already making protective hoods for health care workers.
Elon Musk’s Tesla is looking to help manufacture ventilators for a company called Medtronic, while Virgin’s Space Arm has announced it has developed a breathing device for patients; Mercedes F1 team and the University College of London have also developed a breathing aid.
Sasol has started producing alcohol-based chemicals for hand sanitiser. They have so far delivered 8-million litres to the local market, their laboratories, production, marketing and supply chain. Illovo Sugar SA produces ethanol and is shifting its focus to companies who make the sanitisers. Producers of Klipdrift, Hunters and Savannah and the Spier winery are making alcohol for sanitisers for distribution in South Africa, while Louis Vuitton owner LVMH has cleverly adapted its perfume production lines to provide hydroalcoholic hand sanitising gel free to health authorities. Usually the company makes perfumes for luxury companies like Christian Dior, and owns watchmaker TAG Heuer and Moët & Chandon champagne.
Also in SA, private school group Curro, which has 3D printers at all of its schools, is applying to the Companies and Intellectual Properties Commission for an essential services permit to print protective gear during the lockdown. They are also finding partners to supply the materials for the shields.
Reusable masks worn by factory or construction workers, known as elastomeric half-mask respirators, have been found suitable to use on healthcare workers. The one challenge is disinfecting these masks, as they are manufactured in different conditions to medical equipment and are re-usable. Studies are ongoing in this regard.
Engineering News reports that local manufacturers Kingsgate Clothing Group, which supplies clothing to Jet, Mr Price and Pep, and uniforms, linen and patient wear to government departments, is aiming to make washable, reusable masks. They have found a US company making masks for US agency Fema, who is willing to share its intellectual property with Kingsgate. Kingsgate has developed prototypes and is awaiting government specifications. If the company can meet the specifications, they will produce the masks.
Local sunglasses producer Ballo is making non-medical face masks, which serve to stop you or remind you to stop touching your face, or coughing and sneezing onto others. Struggling to make ends meet due to the global shutdown, they have produced 500 masks out of leftover fabric. US outdoor retailer Eddie Bauer has switched to making the medically essential N95 mask and hopes to distribute 15 000 by early April. US Luxury store Neiman Marcus and craft retailer Joann are partnering up to produce masks, gowns and scrubs for medical staff. Joann is supplying the material, while alteration specialists at Neiman Marcus are making the protective wear. These are to be worn over the N95 masks. Gap clothing is also making masks and protective wear and US designer Ralph Lauren is making 250 000 masks and 250 000 isolation gowns.
One item of protective gear that is not faring well are latex gloves. Members of the Malaysian Glove Manufacturers Association, which makes most of the world’s latex gloves (every three out of four!) has been forced to operate at half capacity to prevent spread of the virus. The biggest supplier, Top Glove Corp Bhd, which can make 200-million gloves a day, is facing a shortage of boxes in which to ship them. The packaging supplier says they need permission to operate to make the boxes, which hopefully will be given. The industry is notorious for its exploitation of workers, and a Malaysian company that was previously banned from exporting to the US for its bad treatment of workers has been allowed to export again. There is a shortage worldwide, and this is a real concern as gloves are vital for treatment of patients. Malaysia, like other countries, is insisting that they make gear for their own people before they export to the rest of the world.
It’s obvious to see that only by collaboration and co-operation will the world get through this, and hopefully will result in a creative and positive shift in the way society functions.