A team of engineers, scientists and doctors have developed a device that provides those who are struggling to breathe because of moderate to severe Covid symptoms with a form of oxygen therapy.

This provision of oxygen is also known as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). The device was found to be well tolerated by users and able to help the flow of oxygen without inducing hypoxia (low oxygen levels) or hypercapnia (carbon dioxide build-up in the bloodstream).

The breathing aid was developed with low costs in mind, an ideal solution for meeting clinical demands in poorer-resource health settings afflicted by the pandemic.

A simple design involving the use of a simple electric fan to generate air flow can mitigate the lack of access to high-pressure air and oxygen supplies.

The device was developed by staff from the University of Leeds, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Medical Aid International and the Mengo Hospital in Uganda.

Staff at Mengo Hospital, Uganda.

Staff at Mengo Hospital, Uganda.

Source: Leeds University

Speaking on their innovation, Nikil Kapur, Professor of Applied Fluid Dynamics, University of Leeds, said, “By adopting the approach of frugal innovation, we have been able to redesign an important piece of medical equipment so it can function effectively in poorer resourced healthcare settings.”

He also said that with the complexity stripped away, the device will work in settings where oxygen supplies need to be conserved.

With conventional CPAP machines costing around £600, ventilators used in intensive care units can cost more than £30,000. In comparison, the new prototype has a total component cost of around £150.

Dr Tom Lawnton, Consultant in Critical Care and Anaesthesia, Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and member of research team, said, “In the UK, CPAP has been effective as the mainstay of respiratory treatment for severe Covid-19 and helps to keep patients from needing advanced ICU care such as ventilators.”

He also stated that simple CPAP devices such as this can help reduce global healthcare inequality.

Following a UK study involving CPAP being a positive solution for Covid-19 suffers, the World Health Organisation has encouraged the development of such low-cost breathing aids, especially for countries where healthcare systems lack adequate funding.

Such healthcare systems rely on large oxygen concentrators that strip nitrogen from ambient air and provide a low pressure supply of oxygen.

The study’s lead author, Dr Pete Culmer, Associate Professor, School of Mechanical Engineering at Leeds, revealed that the prototype has been specifically made to work with oxygen concentrators.

The fan system allows for a safe flow of oxygen, allowing opening of the patient’s airways so oxygen can enter tiny air sacs in the lungs. The oxygen concentrator can then be used to enrich this airflow with oxygen.

The paper stated that healthy volunteers who took part in the trial had oxygen saturation levels in the blood of between 96% and 100% and the carbon dioxide range at the end of exhalation was within accepted healthy limits.

Another trial, this time involving sick patients, will begin next month (September) at the Mengo Hospital in Kampala, Uganda.