Testing will determine if grounded airliners can provide Covid-19 treatment 

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Grounded aircraft could be turned into hyperbaric oxygen chambers to treat Covid-19 patients if clinical trials in Canada prove successful.  

UK diving and life support equipment developer Lungfish Dive Systems is heading up a program with healthcare organizations and aerospace companies to use commercial airliners as Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) chambers. 

HBOT, the breathing of oxygen under pressure can prevent patients deteriorating to the level where they require ventilation and intensive care. Less than half of patients on ventilation are currently surviving the virus with chronic hypoxia, lack of oxygen, leading to death from multiple organ failure.  

Lungfish is exploring the possibility of using commercial airliners as makeshift HBOT chambers, by pressurising grounded aircraft to the required levels for potentially effective treatment – approximately 1.6 times atmospheric pressure. 

Company founder Dr Daniel Reynolds told The Engineer that the most significant work to an aircraft would involve adjustments to various control systems and settings to enable the cabin to be pressurised whilst on the ground.  

“Normally the aircraft are automatically depressurized on the ground to make sure there is no differential pressure that would interfere with the doors being opened,” he said. “These systems will have to be reconfigured.  

“Different aircraft also use different means of pressurization. For instance, it would be best to use aircraft that have their own compressor rather than running from engine bleed-air. Depending on the aircraft used, it might be necessary to provide compressed air from an external source.”  

He added that pending clinical trial results, the treatment would probably be performed in 90-minute cycles, between which times the aircraft would be depressurized, enabling people and equipment to be moved in and out as needed.  

“The medical staff would be well advised to breathe oxygen as well during the cycles of compression, to avoid becoming saturated with nitrogen over time,” Reynolds said. “However, in the case of Covid treatment, they would likely be wearing respirators anyway for safety reasons, so this would not be too different from current practice.”  

A clinical trial of HBOT under conditions achievable in an aircraft is due to start shortly, involving patients at a hospital in Canada. 

Lungfish Dive Systemsis also in talks to secure further clinical trials in the UK to determine factors such as efficacy, optimal dose, which patients might benefit most and any complications.  

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Ben has worked all of his career as a journalist and now editor, covering almost all aspects of technology, engineering and industry. In the last 20 years he has written on subjects from nuclear submarines and autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies and commercial aviation. Latterly editor of a leading engineering magazine, he brings an eye for a great story and lots of experience to the team.

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