UK scientists developed a breathing aid for coronavirus patients in less than 100 hours. Some say the device can spread the virus. (Isaac Scher)
A sign directs directs patients to an NHS 111 Coronavirus Pod testing service area for COVID-19 assessment at University College Hospital in London, March 5.

Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

  • A team of engineers and clinicians scrambling to address the United Kingdom's ventilator shortage developed an alternative breathing aid. 
  • The breathing aid, known as a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure system, was developed in less than 100 hours.
  • Unlike ventilators, which deliver oxygen through tubes, the CPAPs push air into the lungs through a face mask.
  • However, the alternative devices could potentially aerosolize the new coronavirus or spread it through the air. 
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A team of engineers and clinicians in the United Kingdom convened on March 18 to address the country's critical shortage ventilators for its novel coronavirus patients. 

The shortage is "massive," Andreas Weiland, head of the Switzerland-based ventilator manufacturer Hamilton Medical, told Reuters.

Less than 100 hours after their meeting, the team, which included engineers from University College London and Mercedes, found a seemingly workable solution in a breathing aid known as a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure system (CPAP).

By March 29, the country's medical equipment regulator approved the devices for production.

"This breathing aid was produced within a rapid timeframe – it took fewer than 100 hours from the initial meeting to production of the first device," UCL said in a statement.

Mercedes, which helped engineer the devices, can produce 300 CPAPs a day. The manufacturer "can scale up to 1,000 a day with one week's notice," Professor Rebecca Shipley, director of UCL's Institute of Healthcare Engineering, told BBC Newshour on Monday.

Unlike ventilators, which deliver oxygen through closed tubes, the CPAPs push air into the lungs through a face mask.

"It's a specialized tight-fitting mask or hood where we deliver oxygen under constant pressure," Shipley told the outlet. They deliver oxygen "at a rate which is therapeutic and hopefully can help patients manage their respiratory issues without them progressing to full ventilation."

When COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, significantly affects respiration, the device can aid breathing. It "has been used extensively in hospitals in Italy and China to help COVID-19 patients with serious lung infections to breathe more easily," a statement from Mercedes said.

The CPAPs, which have been used in Italian and Spanish hospitals, "will help to save lives by ensuring that ventilators, a limited resource, are used only for the most severely ill," Professor Mervyn Singer, a UCL Hospital critical-care consultant, told CNN.

Because of the ventilator shortage, which has also troubled the US, healthcare workers and experts have scrambled to find and develop alternatives.

As of March 31, the United Kingdom has more than 22,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,412 from the disease.

Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

A dilemma laid bare: the breathing aid may spread the coronavirus, but there aren't enough ventilators for everyone

Although the UK team won praise for quickly creating the breathing aid, some health officials have raised concerns about the safety of CPAPs, which they say can spread the coronavirus.

At the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home in Washington state, health workers began using the devices in late Febuary for patients with respiratory problems. They didn't know the patients had COVID-19 until later.

"It's best practice for us for people with respiratory illnesses," Jim Whitney, a Redland Fire Department medical administrator whose team responded to 911 calls from the nursing home, told NPR. "We had no idea that we potentially had COVID patients there."

But the devices could potentially aerosolize the virus. The American Society of Anesthesiologists has warned against using them for COVID-19 patients, saying they "may increase the risk of infectious transmission."

The gaping need for ventilators drew in requests from the British government to a wide variety of private-sector groups for production help through a consortium of engineering firms including companies like Airbus and BAE Systems. 

The group, named Ventilator Challenge UK, received an order for 10,000 of two models, according to The Guardian, and will join orders requested from companies like Dyson to bring 41,000 ventilators to the NHS.

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