A San Antonio group of engineers and other innovators on Friday began testing a prototype emergency ventilator system developed to potentially aid in the fight against the coronavirus.

The makeshift system, built by engineers from CANopener Labs and City Councilman Robert Treviño (D1) is showing promising early results, said Dr. Erika Gonzalez, an allergist-immunologist who is a medical consultant on the project. 

The team has been working for the past three weeks on building a makeshift ventilator system in preparation for a potential shortage of the machines used to keep the most severely ill COVID-19 patients alive.

Working 18-hour days to build a full working prototype, the team had to account for different potential lung capacities and rates of breathing while building the system. It works by inserting a self inflating bag – also called an Ambu bag, manual resuscitator, or bag-valve-mouth system – into a machine that pumps the bag at the needed speed and volume to force air into a patient’s lungs.

The engineers shifted from fine-tuning the prototype to testing the system Friday on a lung simulator borrowed from University Health System, Gonzalez said. The simulator can be adjusted to mimic the lungs of a healthy or sick infant or adult – and can even mimic the exact lung conditions of a patient with COVID-19, she added.

“That’s what [the simulators] are set up to do, and it can test our [ventilator system] to make sure it’s generating enough air to force the lungs to expand,” Gonzalez said. “It’s looking very promising,” she said of the initial tests run Friday.

The team’s emergency ventilator is meant to be used if not enough regular ventilators are available, explained Treviño, an architect who lent his design expertise to the project. He added that a patient can be on the emergency system for an extended period of time if need be until he or she can be placed on a regular ventilator.

The tests on the emergency ventilator system will help further fine-tune the makeshift ventilator system, said Lawson Picasso, spokeswoman for Treviño. Picasso added that the group has been in quarantine together for the past few weeks, leaving its base at CANopener Labs in North San Antonio only when needed, and making the ventilator prototype the priority. 

The next steps will be getting more feedback from other doctors or hospital systems and more testing, Treviño said. Then there’s the issue of getting U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, a lengthy and costly process. Gonzalez has been working closely with team members in an effort to get the device approved on an emergency basis, he said. 

“On the traditional FDA path, it takes about three years to get a device or drug approved,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a fast track, but even that can take up to a year.” 

The team is working to get the makeshift ventilator approved via an emergency use authorization, she said.

The team’s biggest obstacle right now is time, Gonzalez said.

“We all wish we had more of it, but we’re going to do what we can to get [our system] out sooner than later,” she said.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.