New Delhi: Originally created by a robot scientist and a neurosurgeon to help India’s poor, a toaster-sized ventilator is offering hope in the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic and the demand is booming.

The virus, at its most, launches lethal attacks on the lungs, making ventilators - which pump breathable air into a patient - critical for hospitals
around the world as they are swamped with COVID-19 cases.

With the death count rising in India, production of AgVa’s portable ventilator has shot up from 500 a month to 20,000.

“There was no way we could have foreseen something as big as this,” said neurosurgeon Deepak Agrawal, who co-developed the device with robot scientist Diwakar Vaish.

Priced at around Rs 1.5 lakh, the AgVa ventilator is a fraction of the price of conventional ventilators, which go for more than Rs 7.5 lakh.

India, like most countries, has a critical shortage of beds and ventilators for its 1.3 billion people. The country has so far reported more than 2,000 cases and over 50 deaths from COVID-19.

To boost preparedness for a surge in cases, the government has banned the export of coronavirus-linked medical exports, including
ventilators.

The AgVa plant near the capital New Delhi has been given permission to work flat out to make what could be a key weapon when India has to
fully confront the pandemic.

The makers say the AgVa which weighs just 3.5 kilos (7.7 pounds), will help move less critical patients back to their homes as their machine
is easy to transport and install, and needs low power.

“In case you want to convert a hotel into an ICU, you can simply put this device and start working as it doesn’t require other infrastructure,” said Vaish.

Maruti Suzuki, India’s biggest passenger car maker, has pledged to help AgVa ramp up production after the government called on all auto
firms to contribute to the anti-coronavirus effort.

Seeing people queue for life-support equipment at the All India Institute for Medical Science in Delhi in 2016 convinced Vaish and
Agrawal that there was an acute need for a cheap and portable ventilator.

“ICU care is very expensive. In the private sector, even the richest of the rich can’t afford it for a long time,” said Vaish. They avoided expensive imported parts to keep the cost low, he added.

With its cash-starved health system, India has only around 40,000 ventilators, and experts who have seen the coronavirus crisis explode
in Europe have warned this could become a catastrophic shortage for India.

RV Asokan, secretary general of the Indian Medical Association, said the AgVa portable ventilator was the kind of innovation needed to fill
health gaps.

“It is a basic model which will serve in the current scenario as it is a straightforward oxygenation device,” said Asokan, who added that it
would help COVID-19 patients but not those who have had transplants and other major surgeries.

Sunita Sharma, whose son was hospitalised for five years with a crippling nerve condition, was given one of the machines for free.

“My husband and I had to take turns to stay with him at the hospital and that affected our lives,” Sunita Sharma told AFP.

“I was devastated when the doctors told me my son would have to spend the rest of his life on a ventilator bed. At least now I can stay home
to take care of him and the rest of the household," she added.

With PTI Inputs