Britain made an emergency order of 10,000 ventilators designed at breakneck speed by bagless vacuum cleaner company Dyson, the first fruits of an industry-wide call to arms to prepare for the looming peak of the coronavirus outbreak.
Ahead of an expected surge of cases that could overwhelm Britain’s publicly funded health service, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an urgent appeal to manufacturers 10 days ago to build ventilators to help keep patients alive.
Billionaire founder James Dyson said he had drawn on the company’s expertise in air movement, motors, power systems, manufacturing and supply chain to design and build an entirely new ventilator, The CoVent, that could be deployed in this time of “grave international crisis”.
“The core challenge was how to design and deliver a new, sophisticated medical product in volume and in an extremely short space of time,” Dyson said on Wednesday evening in an email to staff seen by Reuters.
“The race is now on to get it into production.”
Dyson will have to secure approval from the British medical regulator for the device and its manufacturing process. If it receives the green light, production could start early next month.
The company revolutionized the vacuum cleaner market with its bagless cyclonic device in the 1990s and has since gone on to build air purifiers, hand dryers and fans from its base in south west England and manufacturing plants in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.
Separately, British engineer Babcock said it had joined forces with a leading medical equipment company to design a ventilator, while carmakers and aerospace groups are waiting for the government to sign off on an alternative design.
The companies, including some of the biggest names in Formula 1 racing and aerospace such as McLaren and Airbus, are racing to boost production after the government said it did not have enough ventilators in its armoury.
Britain currently has about 8,000 ventilators with another 8,000 on order to come into the health system in a week or so.
By 0900 GMT on Wednesday some 9,529 people had tested positive for the virus in the United Kingdom while 463 patients had died.
Britain is working to acquire more testing kits to help establish whether people have previously been infected with coronavirus, as opposed to antigen tests which show if someone has the virus as they are experiencing symptoms.
Many staff within the National Health Service (NHS) have not been tested, a major concern for health workers and a cause of mounting criticism of the government’s response.
Chris Whitty, the government’s top medical adviser, said testing was vitally important but a global shortage of the materials needed was causing a supply bottleneck.
“Every country is wanting this new test, for a disease that wasn’t actually being tested for anywhere three months ago,” England’s chief medical officer told a Downing Street news conference on Wednesday.
Britain has bought 3.5 million antibody testing kits – largely used to determine if someone has already had the virus – and is currently making sure they work before distributing them.
They will first be used to test health workers.