The Covid-19 outbreak has fuelled demand for medical supplies globally, and Pakistan is no exception. In fact, it is predicted that as Pakistan’s hospitals come under increasing pressure, the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as testing kits and ventilators will become critical. For context, hospitals in Pakistan are cumulatively in possession of nearly 4,000 ventilators – an alarmingly low number given a population of 200 million people. Furthermore, although medical equipment is coming in periodically from other countries (particularly China), it is not enough to meet demand and the need to source essential equipment locally is of extreme importance.
In view of this situation, the Government of Pakistan has requested public and private companies to showcase their designs and models for ventilators, masks and protective suits, and several textile, engineering, tech firms, entrepreneurs and even fashion designers have stepped up and started producing PPE locally.
Viscous is one of the companies to have stepped forward. A 3D scanning, designing and printing company that works in reverse engineering and robotics (manufacturing prosthetic arms and legs), Viscous is currently producing N95 masks, face shields, portable ventilators and splitters (a device that allows one ventilator to support multiple patients) for frontline healthcare workers as well as the police force.
According to Anas Niaz (who co-founded Viscous with Ovais Hussain Qureshi in 2015 during their final year at SZABIST), “in developed countries, people use 3D printers to manufacture PPE and because many schools and universities there have a substantial number of printers, instead of making moulds, they directly 3D print PPE.” However, given that mass producing PPE using 3D technology is not possible in Pakistan due to a lack of 3D printers, Viscous are using 3D technology to produce moulds for masks and shields.
“We did the initial prototyping to gauge sizes and dimensions and we then asked doctors if they were comfortable wearing them for 12 to 18 hours.” Subsequent to this approval, the moulds are now producing about 5,000 face shields and 800 masks a day at a small factory in Karachi. Niaz adds that although several organisations are producing masks for healthcare professionals as well as the general public, the fact that they are disposable make them potentially hazardous. Furthermore, most of them are made of foam or plastic material, which is non-recyclable. “Imagine millions of face shields and masks lying in trash heaps and no one knowing whether they are infected by a virus or not.”
To overcome this problem, Viscous are making shields and masks that are reusable and recyclable.
Giving further detail on N95 masks, Niaz points out that they are made up of fabric (non-woven polypropylene) that provides 95% protection against the virus. Since the cloth has a fine grid, it is very efficient in the filtration of airborne particles and highly recommended for people working on the frontline.
However, imported N95 masks can cost between Rs 1,600 and RS 2,000 and are labelled single-use and are disposable. Viscous on the other hand are making their N95 masks using HDPE (high-density polyethylene), a type of food grade plastic which is recyclable and can be sterilised and will be more economical as they are priced at Rs 600.
To overcome the shortage of ventilators, Viscous are also manufacturing splitters to increase ventilator capacity. In addition they are designing portable respiratory systems that work in a similar way to a manual resuscitator or Ambu bag – a hand-held device used to pump air into a patient’s lungs when he/she is not breathing properly. Compared to regular ventilators that cost $25,000 each, Viscous plan to make their portable respiratory support systems available for Rs 10,000 to 15,000.
The company is now awaiting approval from the IT Ministry and DRAP (Drug and Regulatory Authority of Pakistan) and once this comes through, the plan is not only to distribute these ventilators to hospitals in Pakistan but export them as well – and to this end Viscous are collaborating with various organisations including Hussain Ebrahim Jamal Research Centre, Jazz, National Incubation Centre (NIC), Karachi University and the Pakistan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PPMA), in order to contact manufacturing companies to help scale up their capabilities.
Niaz concludes by saying that before opening up the construction sector, the government should prioritise opening innovation centres to design, develop and manufacture equipment, along with factories that can mass produce them. “We managed to open a small factory where we could manufacture stock between 10 a.m. and five p.m. If we are given 24 hours, production capacity will double. We will also be able to design and manufacture new healthcare devices if our factories are allowed to function for a longer period of time.”
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