How UnitedHealth Group and a team of expert partners developed a new ventilator in 30 days 

As providers struggle in some regions to access critical ventilators to treat patients with COVID-19, UnitedHealth Group and several partners have launched a new, lighter device that can help ease that strain.

And they did it in less than 30 days.

The new “coventor” was initially designed by researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and the Earl E. Bakken Medical Device Center. Experts at UnitedHealth, Boston Scientific and Medtronic jumped in to help navigate technical, clinical, regulatory and manufacturing hurdles. 

Ken Ehlert, chief scientific officer at UHG, told FierceHealthcare that all of the partners in the project made a quick commitment to move forward.

“I haven’t worked on too many cross-company things like that … where it comes together so nicely so quickly,” he said. 

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The device is an emergency ventilator alternative and uses a robotic arm to compress an adult resuscitation bag, which is commonly used by paramedics. As such, the coventor offers oxygen support without needing a healthcare worker to compress the bag manually. 

It can be configured multiple ways to best fit the needs of the patient and facility using it, according to UHG. Ehlert said the coventors cost less than $1,000 each to build. 

A comparison between a traditional ventilator machine and the new coventor design
(University of Minnesota Medical School and Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center)

The goal is to fill a key clinical gap: treating patients who need breathing support but who may not have access to a traditional ventilator. Providing the coventors also can help slammed clinicians who are treating high volumes of patients with severe COVID-19. 

“This allows patients who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to survive, to survive,” said Stephen Richardson, M.D., cardiac anesthesiology fellow at the University of Minnesota, in a statement. “Making the emergency ventilator alternative devices as fast as possible, pushing them to people everywhere—that's what this is all about.” 

The initial batch of 500 coventors is already preparing to ship, with plans to make 3,000 available in total. The devices will be sent to areas where they’re needed most urgently, and the remainder will be donated to the National Strategic Stockpile. 

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David Cook, M.D., vice president of research at UHG Research and Development, told FierceHealthcare that UHG rapidly identified that ventilators were going to be a critical issue to address during the pandemic, and surveyed international responses to gauge possible solutions.

Cook, an anesthesiologist who has led UHG’s ventilator response, said collaborations like this one will be critical moving forward to identify critical solutions to these challenges, as providers cannot do it alone.

“The solutions are not going to occur at the provider level,” Cook said. “No provider is big enough to be able to identify the kinds of things collaboration and data solutions can offer.”

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He said on this specific project the partners were able to fill gaps in one another’s expertise. Boston Scientific, for example, had no experience with making ventilators but brought a strong engineering background in medical devices to the table. Medtronic, by contrast, builds ventilators and was able to take the lead on distribution.

Some team members spearheaded negotiating with the Food and Drug Administration, he said, allowing the key engineering development to continue simultaneously.

Ehlert echoed the sentiment, saying collaboration and teamwork are central pieces of any large-scale initiative targeting this pandemic.

“There’s no individual hero running around the industry right now,” he said. “The speed is made possible by the collaboration.”