VANCOUVER -- Students at the University of British Columbia say they've designed a "simple, low-cost" ventilator that could save lives during the pandemic.

In a statement about the ventilator, UBC says the project from engineering students is among the finalists in a Canadian competition.

The Code Life Ventilator Challenge involves the design of easy-to-use and easy-to-build ventilators meant to help patients with coronavirus. 

The initiative is led by the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre and the Montreal Hospital Foundation.

"With potentially 70 per cent of the population on the brink of being infected by COVID-19, our worldwide health-care systems will be strained beyond their limits," a description of the challenge reads.

"Even now, there aren't enough ventilators to save everyone who needs respiratory support, and doctors are having to make agonizing decisions about who to save… We need you to design a simple, maintainable, easy-to-manufacture ventilator to provide life support to COVID patients anywhere in the world."

The challenge website says the top three designs will be available for free download for those in need.

Winning submissions will be easy to build locally, and judges must be able to verify their functionality.

Participants are encouraged to submit patents before the winners are announced, and to grant licences to local builders to actually make the ventilators.

The prize is $200,000.

The UBC team, nicknamed FlowO2, is made up of eight biomedical and mechanical engineering students.

In UBC's statement, team member and PhD student Laura Stankiewicz said the team customized a machine traditionally used to treat sleep apnea.

"Instead of building a ventilator from the ground up, we decided to use the BiPAP machine because it's already approved for medical applications and people know how it works," she said.

"This allowed us to focus our efforts on writing the special software needed and securing additional parts – which are easily sourced from hardware stores or online supplies – that would turn it into a potential life support tool for people with COVID-19."

A BiPAP (Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure) machine uses pressure to support breathing through a mask worn over the face. Here's more information on how the machines work from Johns Hopkins Medicine. 

The UBC team said conventional ventilators can cost as much as $50,000, but their design would cost just a few thousand to make, and most of the cost is associated with the BiPAP machine.

Their design was completed in two weeks, and sent to Montreal for evaluation.

Prior to building, the group sought feedback from clinicians in Canada and the U.S., UBC said.

The school says the project will soon be evaluated at a simulation centre at Vancouver General Hospital and at a Vancouver-based physics lab.

The team hopes to get the augmentation kit approved by Health Canada so it can actually make an impact in the fight against COVID-19.

The team members are: Oded Aminov, Tanya Bennet, Sam Berryman, Georgia Grzybowski, Adam Levschuk, Tynan Stack, Laura Stankiewicz and Nico Werschler.