By Jordi Rubio and Luis Felipe Castilleja
MARTORELL, Spain (Reuters) - Carmaker Volkswagen AG's <VOWG_p.DE> Spanish unit, SEAT, is taking advantage of a humble windscreen wiper mechanism to build emergency ventilators for a health system groaning under one of the world's worst national outbreaks of the new coronavirus.
At the factory in Martorell, near Barcelona, employees piece together the devices which rely on a balloon of air filling and emptying to help doctors control the breathing of people suffering from the sometimes fatal COVID-19 respiratory disease.
"Ninety percent of the materials are the same that we use to make the SEAT Leon," Patricia Such, SEAT's director of health, security and emergencies, said on Tuesday, referring to a popular vehicle model.
"The motor we are using to ventilate ... is the windscreen wiper motor of the car," she said, pointing to the machine as it pumped air through a tube into the lungs of a dummy human torso.
Companies from carmakers to fashions firm are switching production to ventilator systems and protective masks as the spread of the coronavirus lays bare a critical shortage of healthcare equipment in North America, Europe and Asia.
Spain's healthcare system has been swamped with more than 140,000 cases of the virus - the highest infection rate in Europe and second in the world after the United States. Spain's coronavirus death toll of 13,798 as of Tuesday was behind only Italy's.
In collaboration with Barcelona-based startup Protofy.xyz, SEAT aims to produce 100 of the devices, dubbed "OxyGEN," every day, and provide them to Spanish hospitals free of charge.
OxyGEN is "a very simple device, very easy to use," but could never take the place of a conventional respirator, Such said.
(Reporting by Jordi Rubio and Luis Felipe Castilleja in Martorell, Spain; Writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Matthew Lewis)