A MeerKAT type dish (Wikipedia commons)
A MeerKAT type dish (Wikipedia commons)
  • The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory will manage the development and production of 10,000 ventilators by the end of June, in line with government’s National Ventilator Project.
  • The country only has 6,000 ventilators, and officials worry that this will not be enough to cope with the expected spike in severe Covid-19 patients, many of whom will require assisted breathing 
  • The team, which headed up South Africa's successful bid to host the world’s largest radio telescope and built the country’s 64-dish MeerKAT, is “amongst the best system engineers and system integrators in the country.”
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za. 

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) will manage the development and manufacturing process for the government’s National Ventilator Project, according to documents seen by Business Insider South Africa.  

South Africa currently has about 6,000 ventilators – 4,000 in private hospitals and 2,000 in public ones – and officials fear that this will not be sufficient if or when the country sees a spike in severe Covid-19 cases. The country has the largest number of people living with HIV in the world, 60% of whom have TB. Scientists and health officials worry that this might make them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, which attacks the respiratory system. 

The National Ventilator Project aims to produce 10,000 ventilators by the end of June, using readily available parts or components that can be made locally. Driven by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, the project called proposals for a non-invasive ventilator solution, filled with pressurised air and oxygen. Clinicians believe that this system, which will not require electricity to pump air into patients’ lungs, will be able to treat the majority of hospitalised cases.     

In a letter to observatory director Rob Adam, trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel says that the government has been "inundated" by companies and individuals proposing solutions to a future ventilator shortage. 

He mandated SARAO with overseeing the development and manufacturing of ventilators "based on the experience they have gained in development of complex systems for the MeerKAT radio telescope".  

The SARAO team will work with Bernie Fanaroff, who headed up South Africa’s successful bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Fanaroff – Patel’s facilitator for the department’s steel and metal fabrication master plan – will engage with industry on the matter, Patel says. 

The SKA, when built, will be the largest radio telescope on Earth, with dishes in South Africa and Australia. Members of the SARAO ventilator team were pivotal in South Africa’s successful bid to host the telescope, and oversaw the development and construction of its 64-dish MeerKAT telescope. 

Philippa Rodseth, executive director of voluntary industry body Manufacturing Circle and chair of the NVP steering committee told Business Insider, "Manufacturing ventilators according to a fit-for-purpose specification is something we can do as a country. We have the skills, the production capacity, and we need to apply our energy and resources into something that is fit for purpose."

"If we have the skills that put the MeerKAT together, why can’t we use them to put together medical capacity?"

SARAO members "are amongst the best system engineers and system integrators in the country", Fanaroff says.

"The lessons we learned in designing and industrialising complex systems in a very efficient way [for MeerKAT] allows SARAO engineers to work through a large number of options and designs in a very short time."

The National Ventilator Project plans to start manufacturing ventilators by the end of April.

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