"Breathe" ventilator from ETH wins federal funding

ETH scientists have responded to the coronavirus pandemic by developing a low-cost ventilator that should help to alleviate the shortage of such equipment in emerging and developing countries. The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) is now offering start-up financing for the project enabling production to commence in Ukraine.
Kristina Shea discusses the new ventilator with Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, closely listened to by Ukraine's ambassador to Switzerland, Artem Rybchenko, and ETH President Joël Mesot. (Photo: ETH Zurich)

The coronavirus pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the universal lack of essential medical equipment, especially ventilators, in less developed countries in particular. According to aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, the Central African Republic has only three ventilators for a population of five million. The type of high-end equipment used in Swiss hospitals is very expensive and requires a support infrastructure of intensive care units.

The team led by ETH Professor Kristina Shea has addressed the problem by launching the "breathe" project back in March to develop a simple and inexpensive ventilator costing less than 5,000 Swiss francs (see ETH News 12.05.2020). The new ventilator is mainly intended to provide an alternative for countries and health systems that cannot afford more expensive machines.

Rapid and smooth collaboration

Now the project has overcome another hurdle: the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) has agreed to offer start-up financing of 1.5 million Swiss francs to support the production of the ventilators.

The contribution will be made through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). On 30 June 2020 Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis and Ukraine's ambassador to Switzerland, Artem Rybchenko, signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Bern outlining the terms of the start-up funding.

"This project is an example of science diplomacy," Federal Councillor Cassis commented at a recent media conference. "It also demonstrates the potential of cooperation with the scientific community for sustainable development".

ETH ​President Joël Mesot praised the rapid and smooth collaboration between ETH and the federal authorities: "It's fantastic that this project headed by Professor Kristina Shea – and with support from Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, Ukraine's ambassador to Switzerland, Claude Wild and the SDC – could even be launched during lockdown and has now reached the production stage. I hope that not just Ukraine, but many other countries, will be able to benefit from it."

The scientist who came up with the idea, ETH ​Professor Kristina Shea, adds: "When we started the project, I hoped that we would be able to contribute to alleviating some of the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. I never would have dreamed that the government would step in and support the project in this way. We are delighted to be involved in this humanitarian initiative."

Introduced in Ukraine to start with

This finance round allows the first small series of the novel ETH ventilators to be produced in Ukraine. The ventilators will then initially be delivered to health centres and first-aid posts in Ukraine itself, where demand is high. They may eventually be exported to other developing countries in future as well.