Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE
Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE

The UK is homing in on a solution to the shortage of ventilators needed to deal with the growing coronavirus crisis with help from Formula One motor racing teams and corporate giants such as Siemens and Airbus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week appealed to manufacturers of all stripes to help build 30,000 ventilators so that the National Health System does not run out of capacity. The publicly funded system only has just more than 8,000 of the devices in operation today.

Adding urgency to the challenge is the rising number of UK cases of coronavirus: on Tuesday, the health department announced more than 1,400 new cases and 87 more deaths. Health service chiefs have warned that a lack of ventilators may soon force doctors to choose which patients get access to the life-saving equipment.

While production of the new devices has yet to start, progress has been swift, and an announcement on the way forward is likely in the coming days, according to two people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorised to speak publicly.

Johnson’s request caused initial confusion, with some dismissing his ambition as unfeasible. But three groups have been formed: one is looking at scaling up production of existing ventilators, the second at designing new models, and the third at reverse-engineering them.

The first of those groups — which includes Airbus, Siemens, Smiths and the Mercedes and McLaren Formula One teams — is working on two designs: one for noncritical patients, which can be produced in relatively high numbers, and one for patients in critical care, according to one of the people. Also in the group is Penlon, which already makes anaesthesia machines that perform some of the functions of intensive care ventilators.

On March 20, Formula One issued a statement saying a collective of UK-based teams were working on the ventilator project. “All the teams have expert design, technology and production capabilities, and specialise in rapid prototyping and high value manufacturing, which is hoped can be applied to the critical needs set out by government,” it said.

Seven Formule One teams are focused on rapid prototyping and design, as well as validation and testing, according to one of the people familiar. The manufacturers would then step in to produce the devices in bulk.

The UK is not alone in seeking help from business to deal with the coronavirus: in the US, Ford and General Motors are helping to step up production of respiratory devices.


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