Go back

South Africa’s ventilator project shows value of basic research

Image: Israel Defense Forces

Astronomy capacity helped manufacture of 20,000 ventilators for coronavirus patients

A space scientist has said that South Africa’s ability to produce 20,000 ventilators in response to the coronavirus pandemic shows the benefits of investing in basic research infrastructure.

Adrian Tiplady, deputy managing director for strategy and partnerships at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, gave feedback on the ventillor project to the Africa-Europe Space and Innovation Summit on 16 June.

SARAO was tasked with the project by the Department of Trade and Innovation in April 2020. It repurposed the capabilities developed to build the world-class radio astronomy dish array MeerKAT for the national ventilator project, Tiplady said.

Tiplady said SARAO completed 20,000 ventilators by November 2020 at a cost of €750 (US$900) per device. “This makes a really good case study for how basic research infrastructure is able to respond to local and global challenges which falls beyond, in this case, radio astronomy,” he said.

Tiplady said that the team faced a “huge temptation to just build things” but took a step back to see what was actually needed. The need was identified as non-invasive respirators for people with severe Covid-19 that were “very simple and intrinsically safe” and which did not need intubation or ICU nurses, freeing up South Africa’s small supply of ICU beds.

Tiplady said the team had to be creative as there was hardly any local competency to build ventilators at the time. Machines usually used for making ball bearings for gearboxes were refitted to construct ventilator parts. “There was a huge and great willingness of local industry to rise to the challenge,” he said.