What happens when an emergency doctor meets his engineer neighbour while out on a social distancing walk?

Short answer: the hope of creating 250 new life-saving ventilator machines especially designed to help combat the Covid-19 pandemic by the end of April.

It was a case of "old-fashioned Kiwi ingenuity at its finest," Waikato emergency physician Dr Martyn Harvey told the Herald.

Put simply, a ventilator is a machine that helps move breathable air in and out of the lungs - otherwise known as the machine that keeps patients with life-threatening Covid-19 symptoms alive.


New Zealand has about 750 of the machines. At the start of lockdown doctors warned that up to 7000 ventilators could be needed in New Zealand, based on what they were seeing overseas.

"Yesterday we had only 15 new cases which is phenomenal," and our outcomes so far seem much less severe than other countries but that could still change, Harvey said.

"It's really difficult to predict what the future is going to hold ... but if it does get out of hand and we don't have enough of these machines people will die.

"It will come down to which patient is most deserving and it is a scary reality. It's not a pretty picture," Harvey said.

He and his team are working to prevent that from happening.

Less than a month ago, Harvey got talking to his friendly neighbour Jeff Sharp, a plastics engineer, while out on a walk - 2.5 metres apart, of course.

Sharp asked Harvey about the possibility of manufacturing new ventilators, "how hard can it be?". After which the emergency doctor showed Sharp a 1960s-built machine he had at home.

Within seven days, they had a prototype - a replica of the 1960s ventilator with an updated computer system.


Harvey said they had applied to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) for $450,000 of funding so they could get to work manufacturing 250 of the ventilators ready for use by the end of April.

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A MBIE spokesperson said they hoped to have more information about the funding by early next week and would not comment further.

Harvey said the machines - they have dubbed RespirationNZ - were not as sophisticated as the ones currently in Intensive Care Units (ICUs), in terms of the computering to control the levels of air going in and out - but were just as reliable and similar to older models.

"As a potential crisis could hit at any moment, these machines were ideal for keeping people alive and are far cheaper."

He estimated each machine would cost about $8000, compared to the standard ventilator which cost about $100,000.


Harvey said his vision was that the machines would act as a "insurance blanket" for the Government, so if the situation did get out of hand they were ready for use, and if we didn't end up needing them, they could be used overseas.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

The Herald has approached the Ministry of Health for comment.