As health care workers face critical shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, 3D printing companies, medical device manufacturers and other organizations are stepping up to produce face shields, ventilators and other needed supplies. For its part, Rehovot, Israel-based Stratasys Ltd. has assembled a coalition of more than 150 companies and universities to produce 3D-printed visors and clear plastic face shields. The coalition aims to produce up to 16,000 face shields per week by the end of next week.

Face shields

An March 28 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association underscored the desperate need for PPE for health care workers. “PPE, formerly ubiquitous and disposable in the hospital environment, is now a scarce and precious commodity in many locations when it is needed most to care for highly infectious patients,” the authors wrote. “An increase in PPE supply in response to this demand will require a large increase in PPE manufacturing, a process that will take time many health care systems do not have, given the rapid increase in ill COVID-19 patients.”

More than 30 health systems in the U.S. have approached the coalition for 3D-printed face masks, along with hundreds of requests globally.

As of the middle of this week, Stratasys, which also has a location in Eden Prairie, Minn., was receiving about 2,000 to 3,000 face shields a day and shipping them to health systems.

Scott Drikakis, CEO of Stratasys Ltd.

“The response and appreciation from the health care systems has been overwhelming,” Scott Drikakis, Stratasys’ CEO, told BioWorld. “Imagine how vulnerable our health care workers feel when they heroically go into work every day without the appropriate protective equipment. Also imagine how the health care systems feel when they can’t provide the necessary equipment due to inventory depletion.”

Jay Morris, a radiologist at Mayo Clinic, is one of those grateful for the 3D printing community’s efforts, tweeting Thursday that “on site #manufacturing using #3dprinting has become a critical part of the hospital system.”

Stratasys set an initial goal of producing 5,000 face shields by March 27, at no cost to recipients, supporting the effort with coalition partner resources. That number has grown to about 11,000 this week, and the coalition expects to produce 16,000 or more next week.

“We have demand for something like 40,000 face shield a week, and we believe we’re going to need to get to injection molding to ultimately get the scale everyone needs,” Stratasys spokesman Aaron Pearson told BioWorld. “We are talking with some of the largest manufacturing partners about that, and those efforts are in progress. But the tooling takes time, which is why 3D printing is such an important bridge in the interim.”

Among the major manufacturers working with the coalition are Boeing, General Atomics and Medtronic plc.

Dublin-based Medtronic already has diverted the use of 10 of its 3D printers to print visors that can be used to create face shields. The fused deposition modeling printers, along with the staff who manage them, typically are employed in R&D.

“This unprecedented time calls for an unprecedented response from companies across the world to step up for patients and medical professionals,” Rob Kowal, chief medical officer of Medtronic’s cardiac rhythm and heart failure division, told BioWorld. “Medtronic’s mission is to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life, and we are doing what we can to realize our mission – including through 3D printing.”

The collaborative efforts are unfolding in several ways. Some coalition members are shipping 3D-printed visors in packages of 100 to Stratasys, which pairs them with plastic shields and rubber bands and sends them to hospitals. Other members are getting help setting up and bringing shields and visors together themselves to ship out.

The aim is to ensure that recipients get more than a token amount, meaning at least 500 face shields, Pearson said. Subsequent shipments to individual hospitals may depend on Stratasys’ ability to make break-even costs and what the coalition can provide.

As volumes have increased, Stratasys has reduced the cost of making the clear shields to less than $2; with free 3D printing by coalition members, the $1 per visor has been negligible.

“Every organization that has asked for shields is getting a shipment of shields at no cost, because Stratasys is paying all costs for 20,000,” Pearson said, adding that other partners have also committed to various amounts. “To be able to provide larger volumes beyond the free ones, we’re pricing them at $2.”

One of the challenges for Stratasys and its partners is balancing the voluntary production of 3D-printed visors and face shields with actual orders from health systems. Another concern is the continued, affordable supply of clear plastic shield material. “We’re okay for the next couple of weeks, but [we] are monitoring the situation closely,” Pearson said.

Ventilators

Another critical shortage in the COVID-19 crisis is mechanical ventilators. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that the state – which has recorded the highest number of U.S. COVID-19 cases – had just 2,200 of the lifesaving devices remaining in its stockpile and would exhaust that supply in six days at the current rate of demand.

In a March 30 research note, William Blair analyst Margaret Kaczor said the need for additional ventilators due to COVID-19 could exceed 150,000.

To address that need, a group of Boston area anesthesiologist residents has launched the CoVent-19 Challenge to design a rapidly deployable ventilator for patients with ventilator-dependent lung injuries caused by the coronavirus. Sponsors include Stratasys and partners Ximedica LLC, Valispace, Hackfund and Yelling Mule. Stratasys will give the top three winners a total of $10,000 in credits they can use for 3D-printed parts from the company.

With ventilators in short supply, some hospitals are looking to adapt machines for use by more than one patient. To that end, Formlabs Inc., of Somerville, Mass., is working with several partners, including Northwell Health, to 3D design and validate a ventilator splitter that could enable two, three or four patients with similar needs to receive oxygen from a single unit.

Swabs and other applications

Formlabs also is ramping up production of nasopharyngeal swabs used to collect specimens for COVID-19 testing. The primary manufacturer of swabs, Copan Italia Spa, has ramped up production but has faced demand for millions of swabs from hospitals in its home country of Italy, which has experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the pandemic.

Formlabs produces sterilizable, surgical-grade plastics for use in medical and dental applications and has an FDA-registered manufacturing site. To address the shortage, Formlabs teamed up with the University of San Francisco Health, Northwell Health and Tampa General Hospital to design, test and produce a 3D-printed nasal swab that was comparable to standard swabs.

“After our positive testing results, we then immediately went to work and have already started producing 1,000-1,500 swabs per day,” said Todd Goldstein, director of Northwell Health 3D Design and Innovation. “Not only will these swabs be provided to Northwell Health patients, we are also proud to be sharing the design with other institutions that can 3D print so that patients across the country can benefit from our work.”

Other companies stepping up

Carbon 3D, of Redwood City, Calif., also is pitching in to fight COVID-19. The company is working with various health care partners to boost testing capacity and is assessing multiple designs for a 3D-printed swab. It also has partnered with Alphabet Inc.’s Verily Life Sciences to design a PPE face shield that can be quickly produced and assembled.

Meanwhile, San Diego-based Viscient Biosciences LLC reported that it was pausing its merger attempt with Organovo Holdings Inc., of Solana Beach, Calif., after the latter failed to secure stockholder approval. Instead, it will focus its attention on 3D bioprinting lung tissue to aid in COVID-19 research and drug development.

Specifically, Viscient, or a sister company to be funded and launched shortly, will use 3D bioprinting technology to create lung tissue to support viral infectivity research and explore potential therapies against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for the global pandemic. The 3D-bioprinted lung cells, along with other 3D tissue models comprised of lung cells, including a patient’s own cells, can be used in a “clinical trial in a dish” to quickly test therapeutic candidates, the company said.