Ventilators

Michael Enright, pictured above, has celebrated nearly 50 years of broadcast journalism. He has been with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for many of those years, starting in 1975, hosting among other programs, “This Country in the Morning,” “As It Happens,” and now, “The Sunday Edition.” Michael is known for his calming voice, his preparation in advance of guests who present a fascinating array of topics, his colourful bow-ties, and for his wicked sense of humour. Years ago, on the first of April, he interviewed a “fake” Jimmy Carter, telling his interviewee that he was a “washed-up peanut farmer.” A lot of people were taken in, including Canada’s most prominent newspaper, The Globe and Mail, which took Mr. Enright to task on its front page, only to express its embarrassment the following day.

Michael has also been described as a man “in search of the perfect martini.” (If you are reading this Michael – Bombay Sapphire gin, a splash of dry vermouth, a splash of olive juice, two olives, and a small splash of single malt whisky in a martini glass with a little bit of ice.)

I try to listen to “The Sunday Edition” whenever possible, and I am usually transfixed by what I hear. The April 26, 2020 broadcast featured Mr. Enright’s interview with Arthur B. McDonald. Dr. McDonald is a renowned astrophysicist, born and educated in Nova Scotia and with a PhD from CalTech. He is the recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics, shared with Takaaki Kajita, “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass.”

Thank God this blog post is about ventilators, as my knowledge of neutrinos, and astrophysics generally, would fit on the thin side of a dime.

That is Dr. McDonald above. He turns 77 this year, and while he sits as professor emeritus at Queen’s University, he is still tightly wound into the scientific community. As so often happens with “The Sunday Edition,” an Enright interview can take a surprising turn. “Why would a Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist, take a profound interest in ventilators?” (This story has appeared elsewhere in the media recently, but this live interview was special.)

Dr. McDonald, as easy-going, unassuming, and relaxed as the preceding image might indicate, was quick to pass credit along to his astrophysicist colleagues, especially those in Italy, who with the devastation caused by Covid-19, saw a need to invent and rapidly move into production a much simpler version of existing hospital ventilators, such as the one pictured below.

An Italian team of researchers, led by Dr. Cristiano Galbiati, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, quickly designed a ventilator that could be put into mass production using off-the-shelf parts, few mechanical parts, and with controls and monitoring accessed through WiFi.

Dr. McDonald and his colleagues in Canada have produced a prototype using the Italian template, He added that Canadian teams are working in close contact with each other, and with other groups around the world, to bring their ventilator into production. Their version is modelled after the Manley ventilator, with “20 or 30 working parts” (compared with 1,000 active parts of ventilators now in use). Dr. McDonald described the new ventilator as “about the size of a toaster oven,” and that, “by early May, between 800 and 1,000 machines a week will be made in Canada.” Regulatory approval should be quick in coming.

Anyone would be free to copy the device, according to Dr. McDonald, as the specifications are “open source.” It is a humanitarian undertaking with no emphasis on profit.

This was truly a remarkable interview, with a remarkably modest person who has proven that much good originates in Nova Scotia. One last comment about Arthur B. McDonald: he says his wife reminds him, “you aren’t a real doctor, you know.”