South African company EPCM Holdings has reacted quickly to the heightened demand for ventilators due to the Covid-19 outbreak. It will this week start producing its first low-cost ventilator (see prototype in the above video) units for delivery to several African countries.
EPCM is an engineering, procurement and construction company specialising in oil and gas projects in Africa and beyond.
EPCM’s co-founder and CEO, Tom Cowan, came up with the idea for the ventilator following a visit to his sister, a medical doctor, just before South Africa went into lockdown. She voiced her concern regarding the shortage of ventilators, both in South Africa and the rest of the continent.
“At that stage I wasn’t even 100% sure what a ventilator does. We talked about it and she explained it to me, and it sounded like something very similar to a gas system that we usually design,” he says.
After some internet research, Cowan came to the conclusion that designing a ventilator wasn’t “too complex”.
“About two hours after that, the first concept of a ventilator was born, and maybe two hours after that we started with some more detailed design … And it took about two, three days for us to completely understand what we wanted to build and do a few prototypes.”
The company deliberately kept the design very basic to reduce costs and ensure that it can be made from materials and machines currently available in most African countries. “The whole ventilator can be cut from a perspex plate … and then you basically have to add the electronic component to that and then it will work,” he says.
“We’ve specifically designed it to be easy to manufacture … Our design can be made from perspex, it can be made from stainless steel. If you have nothing else, you can even make it from wood.”
“The whole idea behind this was to get it rapidly manufactured. We’ve partnered with a laser cutting company in South Africa which is able to cut many of the sheets in a day, and we can just assemble,” Cowan adds.
A ventilator is a machine that provides mechanical ventilation by moving breathable air into and out of the lungs, to deliver breaths to a patient who is physically unable to breathe, or breathing insufficiently. Modern ventilators are computerised microprocessor-controlled machines.
Cowan says the Covid-19 outbreak has prompted many people to design simple mechanical ventilators, but these often lack the ability to precisely control the flow of gas. “Our system is designed so that you can physically set the breaths per minute, volume per breath, maximum pressure and flow for the machine,” he explains.
Whereas modern ventilators used in top hospitals cost anything from $20,000 and upwards, EPCM’s model will go for less than $2,000.
The company will this week start with the production of 50 units for delivery to Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Ghana. Cowan says these countries have less stringent regulations around the approval of medical devices than South Africa, where EPCM is yet to receive the go-ahead for its ventilator.
“If you want to get a ventilator approved in South Africa, you need European Union approval … The regulations and the hurdles that you have to jump over to get these ventilators certified is actually the biggest concern and probably the reason why there is not a lot of innovation or new companies starting to focus on the ventilator industry.”
According to Cowan, the South African authorities are however relaxing some of their regulations in response to the Coronavirus crisis. “They have to. It is either, relax some of the regulations or have a lot of people die.”
Commenting on the effects of Covid-19 on EPCM’s core business, Cowan said while most of the company’s construction projects are currently standing still, its consulting, engineering and procurement work continues.
The company is, however, seeing an impact from the dramatic weakening of the South African rand against major currencies. The currency has weakened from R14.76/$1 on 5 February to R19.05/$1 today. “Once you have a crisis, emerging [market] currencies are all going down. I think it is important that you have US dollar-based income, which we do have. But we also have procurement with fixed-price contracts in the European, Asian and American markets, which definitely provides challenges when you have our currency fluctuating like it is now,” he explains.