By Yuddy Cahya Budiman and Johan Purnomo
BANDUNG, Indonesia (Reuters) - A team of Indonesian engineers working around the clock says it has produced in two months a compact ventilator to sell at a fraction of the usual cost, hoping to accelerate the fight against east Asia's second-deadliest COVID-19 outbreak.
Like many other countries, Indonesia faces a shortage of the vital mechanical breathing devices to treat people with the pandemic disease.
Using household materials such as plastic drinking tumblers to make parts, the 40 engineers from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) developed the Vent-I ventilator that is the size of a mini-oven, said team leader Syarif Hidayat.
The institute aims to sell the machines for less than 15 million rupiah ($1,000) each, one-twentieth or less than the typical $20,000 to $25,000, he said.
"The structure of this ventilator is much simpler compared to the ventilator that we see in the intensive care unit," said Hidayat, a 57-year-old lecturer at the university.
Indonesia, where infections of the coronavirus now exceed 12,000, has 8,413 ventilators in 2,867 hospitals across the archipelago, Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto said last month.
That is far from enough for the 180,000 ICUs that Indonesia will need in the best case, according to a recent ITB-led study that forecasts infections rising to 1.6 million in the country of 260 million people.
As of Wednesday, 895 people in Indonesia had died of COVID-19, the government said, behind only China in east Asia. Indonesia has a mortality rate of 7.2% from the disease.
A key feature of the Vent-I, Hidayat said as he displayed the machine in his lab 150 km (90 miles) southeast of the capital Jakarta, is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), which is vital for a steady supply of air to the lungs of people with COVID-19.
CPAP machines, commonly used to treat sleep apnoea, have been used in China and Italy to help coronavirus patients breathe without the need for a more invasive ventilator.
Innovations like the Vent-I may have long-term benefits for hospitals in low-income countries, but it may not greatly help COVID-19 patients, whose care depends more on manpower and technique than equipment, said Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center in Israel.
“Simply having thousands of mechanical ventilation machines will only mean that we'll be able to connect the patients that are in respiratory failure and then watch them deteriorate within a few days,” said Leshem, whose hospital has also done projects similar to Indonesia's $1,000 device.
"For COVID, this is a cheap solution that may not have a substantial impact, unfortunately.”
Hidayat and his team plan to work with state-owned aircraft manufacturer Dirgantara Indonesia to make up to 500 ventilators a week. They are awaiting final clinical tests before getting a license to start mass production.
"The first batch of production, around 600 to 700 units, are not for sale," Hidayat said. "Those will be donated."
($1 = 14,980.0000 rupiah)
(Reporting by Yuddy Cahya Budiman and Johan Purnomo in Bandung; Additional reporting by Rocky Swift in Tokyo; Writing by Fathin Ungku; Editing by William Mallard)