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Unique Robotic Team In Afghanistan Creates Affordable Ventilator Prototype


Afghanistan's health system is a mess after so many years of war. There aren't enough doctors and nurses. The country only has about 200 working ventilators, which is a huge disadvantage in a pandemic. NPR's Diaa Hadid tells us who stepped up to make an affordable prototype.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: In a video, teenage girls stand over a half-built machine about the size of a large food mixer, puzzling out how and where to add parts.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: They're high schoolers in a country where most girls struggle to get a basic education. And they're part of an all-girls robotics team. They're called the Afghan Dreamers. Their captain is Somaya Faruqi. She's 17.

SOMAYA FARUQI: (Through interpreter) For the past month, we've been building a ventilator.

HADID: They began working on it as the pandemic hit Afghanistan. They met Afghan doctors who told them they were using hand-operated ventilators.

FARUQI: (Through interpreter) They wanted us to develop a mechanical device. We're working off an open source designed from MIT. And we're in contact with engineers from MIT and a doctor trained at Harvard University.

DOUGLAS CHIN: My name is Douglas Chin. I'm actually a surgeon practicing in California.

HADID: Chin is the Harvard-trained doctor.

CHIN: You know, kind of walking them through what some of the clinical issues are around ventilators, things like the pressure. You want to make sure that the ventilator itself is not causing harm.

HADID: The girls' first big challenge was literally finding parts to build the machine. Afghanistan doesn't have electronics stores. And you can't buy stuff online. So Faruqi says they began scouring nearby markets.

FARUQI: (Through interpreter) And most of the material we're using is actually from Toyota Corolla car parts.

HADID: Toyota Corollas, the car is everywhere in Afghanistan. And if this prototype works, it should be easy and cheap to replicate. The team estimates the ventilator should cost about $200 if it's produced at scale. The girls are doing this while fasting. It's the Muslim month of Ramadan. And they've got to keep safe amid the pandemic.

FARUQI: (Through interpreter) Each of us work on a separate part of the ventilator. When we get together, we wear masks and gloves.

HADID: A month into the project, the ventilator is nearly ready. It still needs a couple of key parts, including a sensor that can gauge how much oxygen a patient needs. Chin, the doctor, says such a part needs a simple processor.

CHIN: The very, very cheap. I think they're, like, 40 or $50. But trying to get those processors into Afghanistan has proven to be very difficult.

HADID: But the team's ambitious. And they've overcome other hurdles. They first came to international attention three years ago when they were refused visas twice to enter the United States for a robotics competition. After an outcry, the White House intervened. They made it to the competition. And they even won an award for courage.

FARUQI: (Through interpreter) That award was a result of our hard work. It made us really happy. And it's made us work even harder.

HADID: Faruqi says she's confident they'll finish the ventilator soon.

FARUQI: (Through interpreter) Even if it saves just one patient's life, I'll be happy.

HADID: And for the people around the team guiding them through this process, they hope it will also show conservative Afghans what girls can do if given the chance.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "STARLINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.