European researchers retrofit snorkel masks for coronavirus fight

PRAGUE/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Researchers in Europe have been converting low-cost snorkel masks into respirators to treat patients or protection for medical workers battling to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has stretched healthcare resources.

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To help healthcare workers, a team from the Czech Technical University (CVUT) worked with volunteers to add military-grade filters to snorkel masks, which are meant for holiday swimming and typically sell for around 600 crowns ($24) in local stores.

The researchers said that tests had showed the retrofitted masks surpassed the protection of masks carrying FFP3, considered one of the highest grade filters.

“We are distributing (the masks) to hospitals in Prague and in other places,” CVUT President Vojtech Petracek told Reuters. “We have made 2,200 pieces so far and this week we plan 10,000 more.”

A Belgian hospital, meanwhile, is testing snorkeling masks as respirators for patients, drawing on an initiative developed in Italy. The Erasmus Hospital in Brussels began working with a local medical device company to develop the masks, known as Easybreath and which cover the entire face.

The idea was proposed by Italian engineers, who put their design online, as an alternative to a more invasive technique of placing a tube directly into a sedated person’s throat when medical masks are unavailable to pump oxygen to the lungs.

“We have medical masks but they are single-use, so like much of the world, we are confronted with a shortage of stock,” said Frederic Bonnier, a physiotherapist working on the project, which uses 3-D printing for the tubes to connect masks to oxygen ventilator machines.

Ventilation, which is needed to help patients breathe when they can no longer do so on their own, is crucial to saving lives during the pandemic, as the disease attacks the lungs.

“The solution is to use snorkelling masks, but we have only tested them on volunteers. It has to be right,” Bonnier said, adding that the hospital needed an official authorization to use on patients because the masks needed to be slightly modified.

The Czech Republic has reported 2,878 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease as of 1230 GMT on Monday, among 43,498 people tested. Seventeen have died in connection with the virus.

Belgium has reported 11,899 confirmed cases and 513 deaths.

Reporting by Jiri Skacel in Prague and Robin Emmott and Yves Herman in Brussels; Writing by Robert Muller, Editing by Michael Kahn and Rosalba O’Brien