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Richmond Research Lab Joins COVID-19 Fight

mask schematic
Indie Lab’s mask design makes use of injection-molded plastic, which may be easier to re-use than standard N-95 masks. (Image Courtesy: Indie Lab)

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, demand for testing, personal protective equipment, and ventilators has risen rapidly.

In Virginia, one organization has been working on innovative approaches to all three - but Indie Lab, based in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood of Richmond, isn’t a big pharmaceutical company or an established research institution.

Bill Slavin, co-founder and executive director of Indie Lab, says the lab was started to provide a “third option” for researchers and students, outside of academia and for-profit laboratories. Now, using a combination of grants and crowdfunding, Slavin and his partners are tackling coronavirus.

One of Indie Lab’s current projects is a new design for reusable personal protective masks. According to Slavin, the masks would be a replacement for the popular N-95 mask, which is disposable.

“That means that you're going to have a constant need for production of the thing in order to consistently be meeting demand," Slavin says. "So we decided that we would try to come up with a reusable template where we can use less material filter material per product.”

Production of the masks is now in its final stages, and Slavin says he just has to order the plastic injection molds. Once production begins, he anticipates a cost of about $10 per mask - just enough to cover the cost of materials.

Indie Lab is still in the early stages of ventilator production, which they’re basing on publicly available designs from MIT. Right now, Slavin says they’re identifying suppliers, and plan to construct the machines with a combination of prefabricated and 3-D printed parts. He says the cost should be around $100 - far lower than the hyper-inflated prices some states have been saddled with.

In the meantime, Indie Lab is focusing on another critical but underreported aspect of respiratory care: oxygen supplies. Slavin says, “It's important to make the ventilators but if you don't have anything to run the ventilators, then you're kind of still left in the dirt.”

In some European countries, including Italy and the United Kingdom, doctors have reported that even when they have enough ventilators, oxygen shortages have become an unexpected roadblock to care. Slavin says he hopes that won’t be the case in Virginia: “It might not necessarily be important in a metropolitan area like Richmond, but if we go out into outlying areas, the rural areas, it's even more important to be getting these types of gases.”

In the long term, Slavin says Indie Lab is planning to start large-scale COVID-19 testing. Virginia currently lags behind most of the country in testing, which can accelerate the spread of coronavirus in the community.

Indie Lab is raising a portion of the funds they need through public gofundme and patreon campaigns, but the lab is also pursuing grants and private investments.

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