Our frontline medical staff are in constant danger of being exposed to COVID-19 infection. The risk of more serious illness is higher for people exposed to a high ‘viral load’, like our doctors and nurses. In Italy an estimated 20% of healthcare workers responding to the COVID-19 outbreak have become infected, and make up 9% of the country’s cases. It is essential that we minimise the risk of infection in medical staff and stop them getting sick at the peak of the pandemic so that they can care for others. Our healthcare workers are using disposable surgical and FFP3 masks which are in high demand, and in many parts of the world are simply unavailable. Many staff have also reported difficulties with how they fit. Personal respirators are an alternative. They use a fan to draw in air, through a filter, and deliver it to an enclosed hood or face mask. However most respirator products are unavailable, and are expensive or heavy, noisy, and uncomfortable.
PeRSo: a prototype personal respirator developed in one week:
Researchers from the University of Southampton have developed a prototype personal respirator called ‘PeRSo’, intended to address the limitations of the existing protective equipment doctors and nurses are wearing on the wards. Our prototype consists of a fabric hood which covers the wearer’s head, and a plastic visor to protect their face. A small portable unit delivers clean air through a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter to the wearer from a battery-powered fan pack mounted on a belt. In a rapid development process we have gone from a problem specification to working prototypes within a week, and conducted preliminary tests.
These respirators have to be safe and comfortable when worn continuously for 8-9 hours. The PeRSo prototype is designed to be light weight and quiet, because the fan is far away from the user’s head. To tackle availability issues in our prototype we have tried to use off-the-shelf components where possible, and to use readily available materials and manufacturing methods like laser cutting, 3D printing and a lightweight sewing machine.
How to make the PeRSo available to as many people as possible:
The prototype has already passed first-stage ‘sniff’ tests where a strong-tasting vapour is sprayed around the air inlet to see whether the user can detect it, and no penetration occurred. The next steps are tests with doctors and nurses on wards, to obtain feedback on comfort, usability and efficiency. Importantly this is still a prototype, and it is not yet available. The immediate aim is to develop local production and the team are in talks with manufacturers about the potential to scale up production and make the product available to as many healthcare professionals as possible. If the tests are successful, the design will also be published open-specification so it would be available to other manufacturers and people in need around the world. We will also investigate prototypes for PeRSo-DW (Developing World), using only components available to low-resource countries.
Paul Elkington, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at the University of Southampton and Honorary Consultant at UHS, said: “We must minimise the risk of infection for medical staff and stop them getting sick at the peak of the pandemic, so that they can care for others. The engineering team have rapidly developed something simple yet effective. The HEPA filtered air removes 99.95% of particulate matter and the face mask protects from splashes, and so we think this will reduce the risk of infection”.
Hywel Morgan, Professor of Bioelectronics at the University of Southampton said: “This is an excellent example of industry, universities and hospitals combining their expertise and answering the call to develop solutions needed to save lives in the current crisis”.
Robert Read, Professor of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Biomedical Research Centre said: “PeRSO has been developed by the National Institute for Health Research Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, the University of Southampton and University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust. Research is the only exit strategy for this pandemic and the Biomedical Research Centre is supporting our Southampton investigators to develop and apply new strategies to help the NHS, enabling collaboration nationally contributing to the national response to COVID-19 ”.