Australia

Australia's 3D printing experts are banding together to make masks for at-risk health workers

Orthopaedic Surgeon Claudia Di Bella wearing a facial shield made by a 3D printer. Source: SBS News

A collective of doctors, academics, scientists and engineers from across Australia have come together to use 3D printing to address a shortage of personal protective equipment needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Doctors and nurses across Australia have been speaking out about dire shortages of protective gear in recent weeks. 

A survey of more than 600 doctors, released on Wednesday by the Australian Medical Association Queensland, found 70 per cent said they did not have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

And the lack of equipment has prompted warnings from the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

Amid the reports of shortages, an ad-hoc group of 3D-printing specialists across Australia have come together to create the much-needed gear for frontline health workers using their specialist technical skills. 

Researcher Cathal O'Connell has deployed resources at Melbourne lab BioFab3D to focus on 3D printing facial shields for the medical community.
Researcher Cathal O'Connell has deployed resources at Melbourne lab BioFab3D to focus on 3D printing facial shields for the medical community.
SBS News

Melbourne-based 3D printing lab BioFab3D is usually conducting research into tissue engineering, but since COVID-19 hit Australian shores, the lab has deployed its resources to focus on making facial shields.

The shields, in combination with an N-95 face mask, help protect medical workers from airborne droplets that can carry the virus.

"We are producing about 20 units a day of our face shield design which we supply to some of the clinics at St Vincent's Hospital [Melbourne]," engineer and lab manager Cathal O'Connell told SBS News. 

0:00
Australia's 3D printing experts are banding together to make masks for at-risk health workers
Australia's 3D printing experts are banding together to make masks for at-risk health workers

"Our main role being a fabrication lab based within a hospital is that we can try multiple designs with the clinicians themselves, get their approval, and then send out the approved design to the big 3D printing sites who can manufacture them in numbers of hundreds."

The original design of the facial shield originates from Prusa Research, a Czech-based tech company that designs 3D printers to build face shields. 

Facial shields produced by 3D printers at Melbourne lab, BioFab3D.
Facial shields produced by 3D printers at Melbourne lab, BioFab3D.
Supplied
Orthopaedic surgeon Claudia Di Bella has collaborated with Mr O'Connell in recent weeks in optimising the original design for local use. She says the shortage of PPE has been concerning health workers for weeks.

"We are, at the end of the day, the soldiers in this fight, and we are fighting an enemy that is invisible," she said. 

"We don't know whether a patient might potentially have the virus or not, so this collaboration has allowed the bio-fabrication world to really chip in and help in what we're trying to achieve, which is basically protection for everyone in the medical workforce."

Similar joint efforts between 3D printing specialists and hospitals have popped up in virtually every state and territory in Australia. The community prides itself on self-sufficiency, sharing data, and being agile - all qualities that stand to help in this time of crisis.

Dr Kate Dunn and Dr Blake Cochran, researchers at the University of New South Wales, are also working on prototyping PPE designs in preparation for the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have been able to provide some of our early prototypes to our clinicians and to our medical researchers that are working on the virus and we are incorporating their feedback into improving our design," Dr Cochran said.

"So [we are] focusing on things such as making sure that our masks are comfortable, that they can be worn for long periods of time, they don't fog up, and that they are actually suitable moving forward."

Regulatory uncertainty

Those producing facial shields and other protective equipment told SBS News they are not certain whether or not they comply with the Therapeutic Goods Administration's (TGA's) regulation of PPE.

Mr O'Connell says facial shields are considered a very low-risk item of personal equipment.

"We are seeing people from the community with maybe a printer in their garage, printing out shields and offering them for clinical use, and we are not advocating that level of response to this situation yet," he said. 

"That is why we are going through this validation process, testing and checking with clinicians to make sure what we give them is useful and reliable."

"We hope we can be a stop-gap measure and prevent a few more clinicians from getting this disease."

In a statement provided to SBS News, a spokesperson from the Department of Health said the TGA is providing active support in response to the coronavirus.

"Face masks that are required to be included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods are classed as Class I medical devices (lowest risk classification), the manufacturer’s quality management system can be self-certified by the manufacturer, and an independent audit of the manufacturer by the TGA is not required."

"A Class I medical device application is approved usually within one day of the submission of a correctly submitted application.

"Information about how to submit an application is available on the TGA website. All applications for these devices are being expedited."

Payal Mukherje
ENT surgeon Payal Mukherje said navigating the system has not been easy.
SBS News

Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon, Payal Mukherje, who is the ENT research leader at the Institute of Academic Surgery at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, has been working with universities and hospitals to assist with sourcing PPE. She said navigating the system has not been easy.

"I am concerned that in Australia, we are not yet agile enough to respond to rapid demand," she said.

"I think a lot more can be done a lot and it can be far more coordinated.

"I think this crisis has really exposes the weaknesses that we have in our systems."

'COVID SOS'

Surgeon Jasamine Coles-Black is among dozens of clinicians and researchers who are working together to find solutions for PPE shortages.

The group has this week launched a website, COVID SOS, to help connect other 3D printing users and researchers interested in helping out. 

"At the moment, there is a huge amount of work being done in this space, both locally and overseas," Dr Coles-Black said. 

"3D printed face shields are the most popular requested item for COVID SOS at the moment as they are fast and cheap to print, are relatively low risk as they do not need to be sterile, and simply serve as splash protection."

Dr Jasamine Coles-Black has helped to coordinate a group of clinicians, scientists and researchers looking at ways to assist frontline health workers.
Dr Jasamine Coles-Black has helped to coordinate a group of clinicians, scientists and researchers looking at ways to assist frontline health workers.
Supplied

Dr Coles-Black said the feedback she has received is that doctors nationally are concerned Australia will run out of PPE at a time when the country needs it most.

"Reports overseas of the numbers of doctors who have contracted COVID-19 while treating patients and have consequently died is sobering," she said. 

"This is why we are so grateful for the enthusiasm and generosity our colleagues from other disciplines in stepping up to help us protect ourselves while caring for COVID-19 suspected and positive patients."

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch