The NHS could allow doctors to hook two patients up to one ventilator if the coronavirus crisis overwhelms hospitals in the UK.
Currently the intensive care machines are limited to a one-to-one ratio but if critical care units become stacked with patients this could have to be reconsidered.
The risk of infection becomes higher if more than one person is connected to the same machine but one expert in the UK said there was ‘no debate’.
Medics in New York have already been permitted to try the technique by the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo.
The UK is not known to have allowed it yet, but the country is facing a severe shortage of ventilators and has had to draft in vacuum cleaner and plane engine manufacturers to make more to plug a shortfall.
The Government is in a race to get capacity up from 8,000 to 30,000 but has admitted that many of them won’t be available for months, by which time it could be too late.
Ventilators are crucial to helping severely ill coronavirus patients to recover – they are machines which pump oxygen in someone’s lungs when they become unable to breathe on their own (Pictured, an intensive care doctor in Germany stands beside a ventilator)
Ventilators are used to help a person breathe if they have lung disease or another condition that makes breathing difficult. They work by pumping air into people’s lungs if they don’t work properly
NHS planners are considering relaxing the rules on using ventilators in a bid to instantly expand the UK’s intensive care capacity, The Guardian reports.
A US study revealed earlier this month that it was possible to modify a ventilator to split it two or more ways.
Researchers used a single ventilator to help four fake patients breathe at the same time for 12 hours by connecting a series of plastic tubes to the device.
They were able to split the flow of oxygen four ways and redirect it into lung simulators using cheap tubes that are readily available in all hospitals.
The method could be used as a last resort by frontline medics if health services are overrun by coronavirus patients whose lungs have failed, researchers say.
British experts told MailOnline the method may carry a risk of cross infection, but in a life or death situation ‘there was no debate’ about whether to use it.
It comes as the UK hurtles towards a full-blown outbreak with the NHS still critically short of ventilators.
The NHS currently has around 5,000 adult ventilators and 900 for children in critical care facilities.
It could need an additional 20,000 in a worst-case scenario, according to the Department of Health.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has issued an appeal to vehicle manufacturers to switch their production lines and help produce the life-saving machines.
The coronavirus outbreak has so far killed more than 100 people in the UK and infected over 2,500, officially. But health chiefs are only currently testing patients in hospital.
Experts say the true number of cases is likely more than 80,000 because many are self-isolating at home and haven’t been tested.
The 2006 study, by St John’s Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit, investigated whether ventilators could be quickly modified in the event of a disaster.
The research team, led by Dr Charlene Babcock, used standard ventilator plastic tubing to split the flow of air four ways from the device.
They found a single ventilator could be quickly modified to treat four adults weighing roughly 70kg (11 stone) for at least 12 hours.
The study was published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But, as the coronavirus outbreak overwhelms hospitals around the world, Dr Babcock has uploaded a new tutorial on YouTube showing how the ventilators can be modified in this way.
In it, she shows how to connect tubes normally used for tracheotomies to modify the ventilators.
But the doctor admits the study was limited because it did not look at humans and instead used lung simulators.
Writing in the study, she says: ‘The chief limitation of this study is that it is a simulator study. Therefore, only successful physical ventilation could be demonstrated.
‘The presumption of equal ventilation to all four lung simulators presumed equal lung physiology.
‘A patient with asthma with greater resistance to ventilations may not receive equal ventilation with this system.’
Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: ‘Normally I would worry about possible cross infection between the patients using the same device, but if it is a choice between certain death for half the patients and the possibility of a subsequent bacterial chest infection. I do not think there is any debate.’