A pioneering reusable facemask adapted from a diving snorkel has been developed by surgeons to solve personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages in British hospitals treating coronavirus patients.

Sarah Tucker, a reconstruction surgeon at John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, can have 3,000 full face masks ready within a week, and is considering how her team of volunteers can put the product into nationwide production.

The mask, which will be made most immediately in Oxford and the South-West, is being hailed as a potentially game-changing solution because it only requires the weekly replacement of a filter.

It comes after the British Medical Association laid bare the NHS crisis around PPE, claiming health care workers continue to face “life-threatening shortages”.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has confirmed 170 million masks and almost 10 million items of cleaning equipment are being dispatched, but the Oxford surgeons say their product could offer a quicker and more sustainable solution.

Much other PPE equipment used by hospital staff has to be disposed of after every shift. Ms Tucker, whose specialism is recovering severely traumatised limbs, and Ryan Kerstein, a surgeon also based in Oxford, developed their masks independently of their NHS Trust because they believe Government involvement would delay attempts to get their product on to the frontline.

Instead, the colleagues and other senior medics are appealing for financial support via crowdfunding.

“We just happen to be a group of people who are enthusiastic about thinking outside the box to solve problems,” Ms Tucker said.

“We all know each other through work but this project is not done through our NHS work so we are not impacting on our time available for our patients and clinical work in any way.”

Ms Tucker came up with the idea, having done “some scuba diving and snorkelling in the past so I was a little bit aware of the equipment that is available for those activities”.

In Italy, a snorkel was used as a respiratory mask for patients “and that got me thinking about how we could start solving the problem of personal protective equipment for staff in the NHS”, she added.

The mask is a remarkably simple solution. A 70p filter, which already stops the virus spreading in anaesthetic machines in hospitals, is slotted into a 3D-printed adapter which connects to the snorkel breathing hole. It can then be wiped down with alcohol-based wipes after each shift to be used again.

“We’ve sourced 3,000 of the masks and we would be able to have 3D-printed conduits made at approximately 1,000 every 48 hours,” Ms Tucker added.

“So within six days we will have what we need to put the whole lot together and supply 3,000 of these into the NHS.”

Adapting a snorkel has never been done before in the UK and the surgeons have not heard of any prototypes elsewhere in the world for use by doctors.

The masks were successfully tested this week and the surgeons are now considering whether they could make the whole mask in addition to the adapter on a snorkel.

Mr Kerstein told the Daily Telegraph: “It’s a conventional full face snorkel mask and we’ve then created a 3D-printed join to link the snorkel mask to an anaesthetic filter, which will allow colleagues to have a single mask throughout the day or at least for a prolonged period of time.

“The plan is to try to address the issue of PPE shortage but also provide a solution that is reusable rather than the current varieties which are burning through the limited supplies that are out there.

“It’s a team effort between five doctors, our 3D printing colleagues, based at our hospital, at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. We have started a crowdfunding page because we’ve sourced 3,000 snorkel masks at a large UK retailer, which has put them aside for us. We will also make the conduit open-sourced so other companies can use the IP to make their own. It is the sort of thing that any 3D printing firm would be able to access the 3D printer.”

The crowdfunding appeal can be viewed here. 

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