With Medical Equipment in Short Supply, 3-D Printing Steps Up in Coronavirus Crisis

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Nurses at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa., wear masks printed by Filament Innovations.

Photo: St. Luke’s University Health Network

Health providers are turning to 3-D printers as a stopgap measure to fabricate the equipment they need, from nasal swabs to face masks, in the fight against Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Hospital system Northwell Health is producing nasal swabs in New York, the epicenter of the disease in the U.S. With more cases than any other state, New York has seen the effect of global supply-chain disruptions.

“We’re drowning in it,” said Todd Goldstein, director of 3-D design and innovation at Manhattan-based Northwell, referring to Covid-19 cases.

Nasal swabs produced using a 3-D printer from Formlabs.

Photo: USF Health 3D Clinical Applications

The nasal swabs that were being sent to health-care providers in the U.S. as recently as a few weeks ago were being manufactured in Italy and China, countries whose supply chains have been disrupted because they are centers of the coronavirus outbreak, said Summer Decker, associate professor at the College of Medicine Radiology at University of South Florida, which is affiliated with Tampa General Hospital.

Doctors from Northwell Health and the University of South Florida recently worked together to test, design and manufacture nasal swabs using 3-D printers from Somerville, Mass.-based Formlabs Inc. The idea came from the health-care providers.

Northwell Health, the University of South Florida and Formlabs each print the swabs at their facilities.

Health-care workers who treat the new coronavirus wear personal protective equipment, or PPE, designed to prevent exposure to infectious materials. Here’s how the equipment works, and why it’s crucial in the battle against the epidemic. Photo: Getty Images

Northwell Health has the capacity to print as many as 3,000 nasal swabs daily for its hospitals and outpatient facilities, Dr. Goldstein said. The swabs are long, thin flexible sticks with bristled ends and are printed using a sterilized, surgical-grade resin. The swabs go through the nose to the back of the throat to collect a viral sample from a person’s nasopharynx that is then sent to a lab for testing.

The 3-D printing technique “gives us hope that we can tackle this thing head-on, because without testing, we’re not going to be able to quarantine people,” Dr. Goldstein said.

Formlabs 3-D printers.

Photo: Formlabs Inc.

3-D printers, used in industries from aircraft parts manufacturing to home building, are having a moment during the coronavirus pandemic. Suppliers of basic medical supplies, many located in areas crippled by the pandemic, can’t keep up with rising U.S. demand. And as the mobilization in the U.S. of homegrown production still gears up, health officials and 3-D printing companies are sharing digital files which can be “printed” into potentially lifesaving equipment in a fraction of the time.

“Rather than waiting weeks to get your supply, you may pay more per unit, but you’re getting parts the same week versus waiting. I think that’s very important to consider,” said Terry Wohlers, president of research and consulting firm Wohlers Associates Inc.

Recognizing the need for lifesaving components, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week issued updated guidance for health-care providers around 3-D printing specific medical devices and personal protective equipment. The guidance lists recommendations and precautions hospitals should take when 3-D printing and testing equipment.

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St. Luke’s University Health Network is getting 250 face masks a week from Filament Innovations, a 3-D printing company in Bethlehem, Pa., where the hospital network also has its headquarters.

The design for the masks, which can be sterilized and reused, was taken from Thingiverse, a website where people can share digital designs. Filament modified the design to meet St. Luke’s specifications and moved the wraparound band for a better airtight fit. The mask uses a HEPA filter, which is also used in air purifiers.

The 3-D printing community, from students to 3-D printing companies, has overwhelmingly reached out to offer help in printing equipment, said Megan Augustine, director of the network simulation center at St. Luke’s.

One of the advantages of 3-D printing is that many products can be manufactured at a high rate using a single digital design, and the design and quantity can be adjusted as needed, said Dávid Lakatos, chief product officer at Formlabs.

The company, which typically prints products such as dental retainers, jewelry and movie props, among other products, can print as many as 100,000 nasal swabs daily from a facility in Ohio to help medical professionals across the country speed up testing for Covid-19, Mr. Lakatos said.

Dr. Decker of University of South Florida said she began researching whether 3-D printing could help address the nationwide shortage of testing swabs in early March. The shortage affected Tampa General Hospital.

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In Tampa, a team of radiologists, infectious disease experts and ear, nose and throat physicians finalized the design for the nasal swabs, printed samples and confirmed that they were safe to use in about a week, Dr. Decker said. It could typically take as long as a year to get a new medical product to that stage, she added.

“The fact that everybody’s really been able to set aside time and dedicate work to this is really phenomenal,” Dr. Decker said.

Tampa General Hospital and New York’s Northwell Health have been performing clinical trials on a small number of patients to measure the performance of the swabs printed by Formlabs.

“We’ve been able to make some tweaks to the design on the fly,” Dr. Decker said.

Write to Sara Castellanos at sara.castellanos@wsj.com and Agam Shah at agam.shah@wsj.com

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