Uganda has made a major breakthrough in the fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic after a team of scientists led by Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe, Vice-Chancellor, Makerere University designed and produced a functional open design low-cost medical ventilator engineering prototype to support the management of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome caused by the coronavirus.

The low-cost medical ventilator project is being undertaken by Makerere University acting through the Resilient Africa Network, a Project at the School of Public Health, Makerere University; and the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation acting through Kiira Motors Corporation, according to Prof. Nawangwe.

Prof. Nawamgwe in social media posts stated that a team of Ugandan scientists and engineers from Kiira Motors Corporation (KMC) have registered a major breakthrough by designing, producing, and successfully undertaking bench tests using artificial lungs on the low-cost medical ventilator prototype paving way for the next stage of validation.

Why test the medical ventilator prototypes

“The main objective was to assess whether the ventilator’s mechanical function is per expectation in terms of ‘Breathe-in-and-out’ ratios, air pressure, and tidal volume. The prototype performed excellently well on all parameters, behaving like any standard ventilator on the market, “ the Vice-Chancellor stated.

Two weeks ago, Makerere University, Resilient Africa Network, Kiira Motors, and the Ministry of Science and Technology innovations set out to develop a low-cost ventilator to fill a critical gap in the event that COVID-19 cases in the country and the region increased dramatically.

Prof.Nawangwe, said this week, a team of Kiira Motors engineers working with Veterinarians will start the validation process by testing the ventilator on animals before proceeding to clinical trials. “This is an ethical requirement before any new treatment intervention is conducted in human beings. Animal tests will be led by a team from the College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources and Biosecurity at Makerere,” the Vice-Chancellor said.

Ventilator to be approved by the National Drug Authority and Uganda National Bureau of Standards

Following the successful validation process, the team will seek approval from the National Drug Authority (NDA) for testing to begin in human beings.

According to Prof. Nawangwe , in two weeks’ time, the team will start Randomized Clinical Trials  (RCT) on human subjects, led by Anaesthesiologists and Epidemiologists from the College of Health Sciences, Makerere. The studies will commence with patients who are moderately ill, then scale to patients who are severely ill. These assessments will be conducted at the Uganda Heart Institute. Alongside all these tests, the engineering team will receive continuous feed-back to optimise the design. Thereafter, the team will seek pre-launch approval of the product from NDA and relevant quality certifications from UNBS, following which 40 ready-to-use units will be initially manufactured. The whole process is estimated to take 8-12 weeks.

“This ventilator will not only be handy for COVID-19 but will transform the country and the region’s capacity to provide decentralized critical care for patients with other serious conditions” the Vice Chancellor emphasized .

The Chief Engineer of the Project and Director Product Development, Kiira Motors Corporation, Mr. Richard Madanda said this was a major milestone for the country since the low cost medical ventilators  once approved will be used in hospital’s   Intensive Care Units , (ICUs) across the country to fight  the  COVID -19 pandemic .

“ We undertook open technology assessment and adaptation . We have done tests about  the functionality and verification  of the ventilator  with clinicians and now we are proceeding  to do validation in clinical settings before we license the product and we produce at least 40 units for medical use across the country ,” Madanda explained.

The World Health Organization has declared Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic that is rapidly spreading across the globe. There are over  one million COVID-19 confirmed cases, with 55 cases registered in Uganda. Critical COVID-19 cases once hospitalized and placed in the Intensive Care Unit for management require a respiratory assistive technology known as-a Ventilator.

What is a medical ventilator 

A Medical Ventilator is a machine that provides mechanical ventilation by moving breathable air into and out of the lungs, to deliver breaths to a patient who is physically unable to breathe, or breathing insufficiently.  Uganda has 14 regional referral hospitals with 12 functional Intensive Care Units equipped with a total of 55 functional beds implying an estimated 55 ventilators in other words 1.3 beds and ventilators per million people.

Medical Analysts have projected increased global demand for ventilators resultant from the continual increase in severe COVID-19 cases.  Therefore, an increase in conventional ventilator production is very likely to fall short of global demand and with high associated cost. This is the reason why it is imperative to  have low cost affordable ventilators that can be manufactured locally.  And such a ventilator would bolster the country’s surge capacity to provide critical care in the event of increased COVID-19 cases.

President Museveni welcomes venture

Officials said President Yoweri Museveni who is at the forefront in the national response to  stave off the Covid-19 pandemic has welcomed the  initiative and offered to support the production of ventilators locally for not only the benefit of the Ugandan people but the East African region and the rest of the world. At US$ 25,000 (FOB) (~UGX 93.7M) a piece, medical ventilators on the international market are prohibitively expensive.

The team is targeting a starting price point between US$ 1,000 (~UGX 3.7 Million) and US$ 3,000 (~UGX 11.2 Million) per low-cost medical ventilator produced in Uganda . In emergency situations like the one we are facing now, where countries are facing a shortage of ventilators, there is a need to demonstrate strength in terms of developing and providing local contingencies. The anticipation is that this low-cost ventilator will be utilized by the health ministry’s first responders to save lives at risk because of the coronavirus.

The production of such ventilators in Uganda will bolster the country’s surge capacity to provide critical care in case the demand for such care increases even post the COVID-19 Pandemic.


Writer is a media and communications consultant And Advocate of the High Court of Uganda

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