FDA authorizes NASA-designed ventilator for COVID-19

While NASA took enterprising steps last week toward returning astronauts to the moon by 2024, it also moved forward with a more terrestrial endeavor by receiving an FDA emergency authorization for a ventilator designed for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dubbed VITAL, for Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally, the high-pressure device was developed by engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and was described by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine as an concrete example of the agency’s space-based skills and research being applied on Earth.

VITAL is designed to be built faster and easier than a traditional ventilator, and with fewer parts. However, it is not made to last as long as typical hospital hardware—just three or four months compared to years for a more durable device.

NASA's VITAL device (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

"Now that we have a design, we're working to pass the baton to the medical community, and ultimately patients, as quickly as possible," said Fred Farina, chief innovation and corporate partnerships officer at Caltech, which is freely providing JPL’s product license and searching for commercial manufacturers.

The FDA’s green light allows the device to be used specifically for COVID-19 patients. In addition, it is constructed with components from outside the medical device supply chain, according to the agency, to lessen the impact on the supplies needed for currently made ventilators.

“Fighting the virus and treating patients during this unprecedented global pandemic requires innovative approaches and action,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn in a statement. “It also takes an all hands-on deck approach, as demonstrated by the NASA engineers who used their expertise in spacecraft to design a ventilator tailored for very ill coronavirus patients.”

At the same time, NASA—in partnership with the space exploration agencies of Europe, Japan and others—scheduled a virtual, 48-hour "hackathon" for later this month, inviting participants around the world to develop digital solutions for different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teams will use various Earth observation data to help understand the spread of the novel coronavirus and its global and local impacts on health, the environment and the economy.