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Could you save lives in your community by buying oxygen concentrators from Alibaba?

by abergal1 min read16th Mar 202012 comments

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Alibaba (and Amazon) sell lots of "portable oxygen concentrators" in bulk for $200 - $300 a piece, e.g this one. These seem to differ from medical-grade oxygen concentrators (which you need a prescription to buy) in that they deliver less oxygen at less purity, i.e. medical-grade oxygen concentrators can provide >5L/min of oxygen at > 85% purity, whereas one of these goes from 1L/min at 92% to 5L/min at 30%.

Here's a case for why buying one or more could be life-saving, which I would love LessWrong's opinion on. I think any of these points could be quite wrong.

  • Some sources I've consulted suggest that something like ~7% of infected patients must go to the hospital, are put on low-flow (<5L/min) ventilation, and then recover.
    • The source above suggests that this could be a life-or-death difference.
    • Seems plausible that one Alibaba oxygen concentrator would be enough for some patients.
    • In a pinch, seems like you could put several of these together with some tubing to make a 5L / min concentrator at high purity.
  • Ventilators are much more limiting than oxygen, but if hospitals become absurdly overwhelmed, it seems plausible that even oxygen access will be limiting.
  • These are produced in China, which has (for now) enough health-care capacity to deal with its patients, so you may not be taking away medical supplies from people who use them otherwise. I worry that they will be used by more legitimate institutions in the future, but maybe they can just be donated to those institutions if that seems to be the case. Alibaba also lists these as "Hot New March 2020" products, suggesting they might be increasing supply to meet demand.

Even if this is a good idea, I'm not sure if it's cost-effective over other life-saving interventions, but it seems plausible that you could convince someone who wouldn't otherwise give money to buy them (e.g., they could buy one if they were particularly concerned for a family member and then donate it as necessary).

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Seems plausible that one Alibaba oxygen concentrator would be enough for some patients.

Agree that this is plausible; 2L/min at 70% can raise a patient's FiO2 from 21% to ~26%, more if used with a reservoir cannula.

However, in much of the USA, it seems like ventilators and healthcare workers will be limited, but hospital O2 supply will be sufficient-- from what I've read, Italy is short of ventilators, personnel, and protective equipment but not O2. The advantage of O2 concentrators would mainly be to relieve overcrowding by treating moderate cases outside of hospitals, which doesn't seem sufficiently impactful, especially if the concentrators aren't in constant use. Maybe e.g. the UK (with fewer hospital beds per capita) or a developing country would be a better candidate.

Edit: I think hospital surge tents use oxygen tanks: see here for an example. I don't know how they'll be supplied, but increases in liquid oxygen supply or donations of used home O2 concentrators could each probably meet demand alone. Also, US Society for Critical Care Medicine is worried about ventilators, personnel, and hospital beds but not O2.

Actually it looks more like 400$ - including shipping and taxes. Plus the risk that it will get there at all or not in time.

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