NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) usually builds spacecraft, but the team unveiled a medical ventilator recently that it had designed in just 37 days. The device, designed specifically for COVID-19 patients, could be the difference between life and death as hospitals around the world run low on this critical equipment. NASA now says that the FDA has granted an Emergency Use Authorization, allowing the device to be used in hospitals.
The new strain of coronavirus has spread across the globe, resulting in more than 3 million confirmed infections and over 200,000 deaths. The virus attacks the lungs, with the most common symptoms being cough and fever. However, some patients develop difficulty breathing that can progress to severe respiratory distress. Because these patients can’t breathe on their own, they need ventilators to pump air into their lungs, but hospitals are short on the necessary equipment.
The device, known as VITAL (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally), is not as durable or versatile as traditional medical ventilators. However, it’s cheaper and easily repairable. The team expects VITAL machines to work for several months without a major failure, whereas other devices might work for years. However, hospitals should be able to modify and repair VITAL on-site rather than sending them off to specialized technicians.
JPL had VITAL tested in late April at the Icahn School of Medicine with a human patient simulator. After that, JPL submitted a request to the FDA for the Emergency Use Authorization. Now that VITAL has approval, someone has to build it. JPL made prototypes for testing, but it’s not set up to manufacture thousands of the devices. For that, it will turn to the private sector.
The Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships at Caltech manages JPL projects for NASA, and it has opted to offer VITAL with a free license to manufacturers. The staff is currently searching for partners that have the capacity to build VITAL respirators rapidly for use in hospitals. There’s a website with information about the device and instructions on how to apply for a license. The agency has asked for applications by May 4th so it can award licenses on May 7th. It’s possible VITAL machines could be in hospitals within several weeks. Meanwhile, we haven’t heard a peep about Tesla’s car-based ventilator since early April.
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