Ventilators and oxygen helmets designed by Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic to be manufactured in Africa

picture showing 3 people at work stations working on medical kit wearing masks
Image from Virgin Orbit
Head shot of Tania Steere.  She is smiling, with long, wavy blonde hair
by Tania Steere
26 May 2020

Philanthropists Richard Branson, Jeff Skoll and Strive Masiyiwa have teamed up to help African nations secure low-cost, urgently needed medical equipment as COVID-19 cases rise across the continent. 

Mr Masiyiwa, co-founder of Higherlife Foundation, has recently been named an African Union Special Envoy to mobilise the private sector response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This initiative will start with the production of 1,000 bridge ventilators, a design that was developed for free by engineers at Virgin Orbit and has recently received emergency use authorisation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  It is designed with a price significantly lower than a normal ventilator.

The partners are also in discussions with Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and NASA [all part of the Aerospace Valley Task Force] regarding the oxygen helmet prototype, currently pending FDA approvals in the US. Oxygen helmets help open up the alveoli in the lungs, and delay or prevent Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).

Richard Branson and the Virgin Group has a deep connection with Africa. Virgin Unite, the Virgin Group’s entrepreneurial foundation, is supporting projects across the continent, including Last Mile Health, who are mobilising community health workers to fight the pandemic. South Africa is also home to Virgin companies including Virgin Active, Virgin Money and Virgin Mobile, and Virgin Atlantic flies to South Africa and Nigeria. 

“We’ve been honoured to work in partnership with Strive, Jeff and the team at Invicta to get much needed bridge ventilators and oxygen helmets to countries across Africa,” Richard Branson said. “I’m so proud of the teams at Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic who immediately pivoted their engineering expertise to create low-cost, innovative solutions to save lives. Our foundation, Virgin Unite, will continue to support this partnership and work with its other partners, like Last Mile Health who are mobilising thousands of community health workers, to do what we can to help flatten the curve in Africa.”

picture of lots of blue plastic medical bottles with blue lids and black straps
Image from Virgin Galactic

Mr Masiyiwa, who is also founder and Group Chairman of Econet Global, said: “We have found a major South African company called Invicta that can mass produce these bridge ventilators and oxygen hoods. Any country that wants them can buy them at cost from that company.”

The philanthropists have come together to secure initial orders, ensuring that the devices can quickly reach healthcare professionals across the continent to save lives. This will be the first of many innovations that will be locally manufactured in Africa to serve the needs of over 1.2 billion people facing the onslaught of this pandemic.   

Jeff Skoll said, “The global scope of this pandemic requires an urgent and coordinated response. This is a tangible example of how working together gets us farther, faster on behalf of those who deserve access to PPE and assistive breathing devices but have been boxed out of the global purchasing markets. We consider it an honour to work with Strive, Richard, and the Africa CDC on this effort.”

picture of 2 men sat at a work bench with 2 laptops both wearing visors look to be testing a ventilator in the process of being made
Virgin Orbit

Mr Masiyiwa has also pulled together a team to build an online platform to manage global procurement of much-needed medical equipment, including PPE. This will be launched in partnership with the African CDC before the end of May. 

In 2014-16, the African Union in partnership with a range of global organisations, successfully led the response to Ebola in West Africa, stopping it from taking millions of lives and spreading to the rest of the world. Its expertise will be critical in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and in strengthening health systems across the continent.