As healthcare workers grapple with the threat of coronavirus, personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields have been relied upon like never before.
While countries around the world, including Australia, try to source the vital equipment to protect doctors and nurses amid a global shortage, a team at the Australian National University has stepped in, making their own protective gear.
The university's MakerSpace has already produced more than 2000 face shields for medical staff, and plans to make 15,000 more.
The face shields will be sent to healthcare workers in Canberra, Queanbeyan and Sydney's south-east.
The team has also made a prototype of a face mask that will be used by non-frontline health services, such as staff at pathology labs, with enough material to make 2000 masks.
The protective gear will be offered to healthcare workers free of charge.
MakerSpace's personal protective equipment project manager Rachael Hanrick said the group was looking for ways it could help during the pandemic, as lockdown measures were put into place.
"We started around four or five weeks ago when everything was uncertain and Australia was shutting down, and we had seen reports across the world where there had been a huge shortfall of protective equipment," she said.
"MakerSpaces at other universities and manufacturers had stepped up to fill the shortfall, so at that point we looked into what we could do."
After first investigating whether the face shields could be made with 3D printing, Ms Hanrick said making the equipment that way would be too slow in order for the shields to be mass produced quickly.
Instead, the university team used open-source designs for similar shields by the University of Wisconsin, which had been tested in hospitals, and manufactured them on mass with the help of laser cutters and materials in Canberra.
The mass production allows for a person to make 26 face shields in an hour and the team is able to manufacture 800 masks in a day.
"We see our role as a stop-gap between the immediate shortfall of hospitals and general practices, which are finding protective equipment hard to secure from their normal sources," Ms Hanrick said.
Further tests to refine the university's designs were carried out by Canberra Health Services workers, before a production line was set up.
While the face shields may look similar to many other shields, Ms Hanrick said there were a few minor adjustments made to make them safer for workers.
"They're quite similar to the surgical-theatre type of face shields, but the difference is we use a clearer film, and the elastic is not the throw-away type but a thicker type."
As the face shields are often the last bit of protective equipment put on by health staff and offer only eye and face protection and do not make a clinical claim, the shields made by the university do not need to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in order to be used in hospitals.
Ms Hanrick said there was vigorous testing of the shields in a range of settings before they were sent to ACT and NSW hospitals.
"The road testing included passing through infection control teams so they were fit for purpose and that there were no gaps in the shield that would allow droplets to come through," she said.
The university's MakerSpace is normally made up of 1400 members, who include students, academics and professionals across the university.
The space's founder, Dr John Debs, said while the product being manufactured from the university may be different, the concept behind it was similar to other projects.
"It's not that radically different. The concept of a MakerSpace is that it brings a community of people together to share in a love of producing things," he said.
"I see this as a critical part of our mission as a university to support the community, and we are a community institution."
The university is just one of several organisations and manufacturers who have taken up the call to produce their own protective equipment since the outbreak of coronavirus.
The federal government in March issued a call out to any company that might be able to make their own protective equipment to help boost the national stockpile.
More than 130 companies responded to the request to produce more face masks, gloves and face shields.
In one instance, South Australian company Detmold, which normally makes food and drink packages for fast-food outlets, said it would begin manufacturing surgical masks and respirators to meet the demand for protective equipment.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration said protective equipment would need to meet regulatory requirements should it be claimed it was made for therapeutic purposes or intended for use in a clinical settings.
The administration said there had been an increase in coronavirus-related applications to make protective equipment, and additional surveillance for medical devices was being carried out.
"The TGA is expediting assessment of all medical devices applications related to COVID-19 and actively supports companies seeking regulatory guidance," a spokesman said.
"PPE making initiatives by volunteers or volunteer organisations, where the conduct is not of a commercial nature, are not ordinarily subjected to the Therapeutic Goods Act."
Dr Debs said the reaction to the face shields by medical staff had been positive since manufacturing began.
"Australia has come out of coronavirus relatively well with social distancing, but we're still slaves to the same supply chains and challenges in getting protective equipment being seen around the world," he said.
"We see it as community good, universities should be here to do this sort of thing.
"It's essentially community outreach."
Ms Hanrick said while the design of the face masks might not have reinvented the wheel, it had been able to make a difference to medical staff.
"We've been focusing in helping hospitals, and they've been getting value out of that," she said.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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