KABUL -- A team of robot-designing girls in Afghanistan is trying to build a low-cost medical ventilator from car parts as health authorities look to boost critical-care capabilities for coronavirus patients.
As of Thursday (April 16), Afghanistan had 840 confirmed cases of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus, including 30 deaths. The true number of cases is feared to be much higher, as only limited testing kits are available.
Should the teenagers succeed and obtain government approval for their prototype, they say it could be replicated for as little as $300 (23,000 AFN), whereas normally ventilators sell for about $30,000 (2.3 million AFN).
"The team is working with local health specialists, as well as experts from Harvard University, to produce the prototype based on a design by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology," said Roya Mahboob, who runs an Afghan technology company and sponsors the group of five girls, aged 14-17.
They are part of a bigger group of high-achieving high-school girls known as the "Afghan Dreamers" from Herat, where the coronavirus is on the rise after thousands of Afghans returned from neighbouring Iran as it experienced a spike in cases.
The girls made headlines in 2017 after being denied visas to take part in a robotics competition in Washington -- before US President Donald Trump intervened and they were allowed to travel.
Using Toyota parts
They are taking engine and battery parts from a Toyota Corolla -- ubiquitous on the streets of Afghanistan -- to produce a prototype they started designing after the Herat governor called for more ventilators as coronavirus cases rose.
Central to the ventilator is a self-inflating plastic sac known as an Ambu bag that medical staff use to help patients breathe. The girls' prototype uses a mechanical system to operate the bag automatically and accurately.
"The complicated part is how to adjust the timing and pressure of pumping, as different patients require different volume and pressure of air based on their age and the severity of their condition," Sumaya Farooqi, the team's 17-year-old captain, told AFP.
With a population of 35 million, Afghanistan has only about 300 ventilators.
Officials have asked specialists and engineers to help the team, said Afghan Health Ministry spokesperson Wahidullah Mayar.
"We appreciate and encourage these hard-working girls, our sisters, for their efforts to produce ventilators," Mayar said.
Any ventilator prototype would need approval from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Health Ministry before the team could start producing more devices, Mayar said.