A loud hiss and grunt come from a green bag pressing air through a tube, as Senegalese researchers work to develop a prototype ventilator that could cost US$160 each instead of tens of thousands of dollars.
The team is using 3D printed parts as it works to find a homegrown solution to a medical shortfall that has struck even the richest countries: How to have enough breathing machines to handle an avalanche of COVID-19 patients who need the devices to help increase their blood oxygen levels.
Complicating the task in Africa is the fact that the peak in coronavirus cases for the continent is expected to come later than in Europe and the US, well after dozens of other countries have bought out available supplies.
“Africans must find their own solutions to their problems. We must show our independence. It’s a big motivation for this,” said Ibrahima Gueye, a professor at the Polytechnic School of Thies in Senegal, on the 12-member team developing the prototype ventilator.
Their efforts are being mirrored elsewhere across the continent. Many hope that these efforts to develop ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizers and quick-result antibody tests will lead to more independent solutions for future health crises.
Although the quality of some products would not meet as high a standard as in the US or Europe, Gueye said there is excitement that level can be reached eventually, with enough time and investment.
In Ethiopia, biomedical engineer Bilisumma Anbesse is among the volunteers repairing and upgrading old ventilators. While the country has tried to procure more than 1,000 ventilators abroad, progress has been thwarted by the high demand.
“US and Chinese companies that produce mechanical ventilators are saying they can’t accept new orders until July. The same is true with other medical items like PPE and gloves,” Anbesse said.
Institut Pasteur in Dakar is working on a rapid test for COVID-19 in partnership with the British biotech firm Mologic, which developed a rapid Ebola test. They hope the test, which can give results in 10 minutes, could be distributed across Africa as early as next month.
Once a prototype is validated, the test kits would be made in the UK and at a new facility in Senegal for infectious disease testing, DiaTropix, that was founded by Institut Pasteur.
Workers in Dakar are using laser cutters to make about 1,000 face shields per week for healthcare workers.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are being produced in Zimbabwe on university and technical college campuses that have been transformed into “COVID response factories.”
Zimbabwean Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Amon Murwira said the teams are producing face masks, gowns and aprons.
It is not known whether these projects would be finished before the virus hits its peak in Africa, but observers say the longer-term impact of such ingenuity is substantial.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Deputy Director Ahmed Ogwell said. “What we’re seeing in Africa is going to change the way medical supplies in particular are manufactured.”
He predicted there would be a “new public health order” after the pandemic, with changes in global supply chains.
Countries are already taking steps toward not having to rely on help from abroad.
Ghana is using drone technology to transport COVID-19 tests and PPE in collaboration with a US-based Zipline, which was already distributing vaccines and medical supplies to remote parts of the country.
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