African nations seek their own solutions in virus crisis

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In this photo taken Monday, April 13, 2020, medical students test a self-designed computer-controlled ventilator prototype at the Chandaria Business and Incubation Centre of Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. Researchers across Africa are looking for ways to make their own ventilators, protective equipment and hand sanitizers as the continent faces a peak in coronavirus cases long after the United States and European countries have bought up global supplies during the pandemic. (AP Photo/John Muchucha)

DAKAR – A loud hiss and grunt come from a green bag pressing air through a tube, as Senegalese researchers work to develop a prototype ventilator that could cost a mere $160 each instead of tens of thousands of dollars.

The team is using 3-D printed parts as it works to find a homegrown solution to a medical shortfall that has struck even the richest countries: how to have enough breathing machines to handle an avalanche of COVID-19 patients who need the devices to help increase their blood oxygen levels.

Complicating the task in Africa is the fact that the peak in coronavirus cases for the continent’ is expected to come later than in Europe and the United States, well after dozens of other countries have bought out available supplies.

“Africans must find their own solutions to their problems. We must show our independence. It’s a big motivation for this,” said Ibrahima Gueye, a professor at the Polytechnic School of Thies in Senegal, on the 12-member team developing the prototype ventilator.

Their efforts are being mirrored elsewhere across the continent, where medical supplies are usually imported.

Many hope that these efforts to develop ventilators, personal protective equipment, sanitizers and quick-result antibody tests will lead to more independent solutions for future health crises.

Although the quality of some products won’t meet as high a standard as in the U.S. or Europe, Gueye said there is excitement that level can be reached eventually, with enough time and investment.

In Ethiopia, biomedical engineer Bilisumma Anbesse is among those volunteers repairing and upgrading old ventilators. While the country has tried to procure more than 1,000 ventilators abroad, progress has been thwarted by the high demand.