ROME, Italy – They may not be a miracle cure or a vaccine, but respirator valves from 3-D printers have helped coronavirus patients breathe a little easer in the Italian epicenter of COVID-19.
Italy has thrown everything at a pandemic that has killed more than 6,000 people in just a month, more than anywhere else.
Hospitals in the northern Italian heart of the outbreak have had to make life-and-death decisions about which patients to try and save, and which to send home.
There are not enough beds, doctors, equipment – and the severe cases keep flooding in.
Italy’s death rate slowed slightly between Saturday and Monday, giving a glimmer of hope that the end is in sight.
Still, the Mediterranean country registered more than 2,000 fatalities and 16,000 confirmed infections in the 3-day span.
Currently, more than 3,200 intensive care patients are receiving treatment for COVID-19.
Into this unfolding disaster stepped Alessandro Romaioli, a young engineer from an Italian company called Isinnova, which specializes in 3-D printing.
The company’s usual products include earthquake sensors and bicycle parts.
But that changed when a local newspaper in Brescia, where the death and infection rates are among the highest in the world, contacted Romaioli and his startup, trying to find ways to help the city’s overwhelmed hospital.
“They were asking if it was possible to 3-D-print Venturi valves” – a critical part of a respirator machine – Romaioli told AFP in a Skype interview from Brescia.
Romaioli had no idea.
The Isinnova team went to the hospital for a closer look at the part. They then drafted a blueprint for use by the 3-D printer.
No one was sure it would work because the margin of error for such valves is tiny.
“We printed four prototypes and brought them back to the hospital,” Romaioli said. “And they told us they worked.”
The Brescia hospital staff were ecstatic.
“They tested them on patients and the results were excellent. They told us: ‘Fantastic! Now we need 100 more of these’.”
Mauro Borelli, the hospital director, was effusive in his praise for the printers.
“Our respirator valves had run out and we no longer knew how to give oxygen to our patients,” Romaioli told the Il Fatto Quotidiano daily.
“The 3-D printing saved us.”
Isinnova has also adapted diving masks so that they can be connected to respirators, and numerous other companies are trying to give a similar helping hand.
Calzedonia, an Italian fashion brand that usually makes lingerie and hosiery, said its plants began daily production of 10,000 face masks on Monday.
It promises to ramp up production to help meet seemingly endless demand.
Other companies retooling their equipment to help battle the stealth killer include Macron, an Italian sports apparel company, which is using its factories in China to produce masks, gloves and doctors’ gowns.
The Italian-American automaker Fiat-Chrysler, which has suspended production across Europe, has pledged to make one million masks by May. – Rappler.com