Scientists at the world’s largest particle physics laboratory are developing a no-frills ventilator to treat patients with COVID-19, inspired by equipment they use to explore the mysteries of the universe.
Ventilator producers have been scrambling to meet urgent hospital demand. But as the death toll rises, the machines, which help pump oxygen into the lungs of critically ill patients, remain in short supply.
When the pandemic broke out, “we were discussing and brainstorming any way we could contribute,” said Paula Collins, one of the physicists leading the project at the European Organization for Nuclear Science, or CERN.
She said they were amazed to discover that the systems they use to monitor gas flows in their experiments matched some of the requirements for a ventilator.
Collins works on the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment project, which explores what happened after the Big Bang that allowed matter to survive and build the universe we know today.
From quarks to ventilators
CERN’s High Energy Ventilator (HEV) would not compete for parts used by other manufacturers, she said. It’s mainly useful for people with milder cases of the disease or who are in recovery, freeing up high-end machines for the very sick.
“Our design is based on components that are cheap and easy to obtain and is not in competition with the manufacturers who are trying to ramp up their standard production,” she said.
The laboratory is working with hospitals in Geneva and Lausanne to develop the prototype and hopes to have one ready for regulatory review in the coming weeks.
The scientists say they aren’t looking to profit from the effort and that CERN will leave production up to manufacturers. They are in discussions with the World Health Organization and partner institutions in other countries about deployment plans.
“As a publicly funded laboratory, CERN’s focus is on maximizing the positive impact of its technologies on society, rather than any financial benefit,” CERN said in an email.