Oxygen has been difficult to find and has been extremely expensive in countries that have been affected by COVID-19.
Medical oxygen has become one of the most important life-saving products in the fight against COVID-19 during which patients develop pneumonia and hypoxaemia, a low level of oxygen in the blood.
Dozens of COVID-19 patients in India have died due to acute oxygen shortages, which has brought the production and supply of this critical medical item to the global spotlight.
When is medical oxygen used? How is it administered? Which countries produce the most? And how does it occur? We answer these questions in four graphs.
The impact of COVID-19 on the lungs
The Sars CoV-2 virus in many cases targets the respiratory system, causing inflammation of the lungs. In severe cases, this can lead to hypoxemia, which is the leading cause of death among patients with COVID-19.
A blood oxygen saturation level (SpO2) above 95 percent is a healthy range for children and adults. Oxygen saturation levels below 90% are considered hazardous. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 20 percent of COVID patients will need oxygen therapy to prevent respiratory failure.
Types of oxygen therapy
Oxygen can be administered in several ways. For low to moderate oxygen deficiencies, patients may be given a nasal cannula (a medical tube that crosses the two nostrils) or a simple or depot face mask. In these cases, one to 15 liters of oxygen per minute is delivered to supplement the patient’s usual breathing.
If larger volumes of oxygen are required, patients can be placed in a high-flow nasal cannula, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, or a ventilator. In these cases, up to 100 percent of the oxygen a person inhales comes from the oxygen cylinder. In the case of a ventilator, a continuous supply of oxygen may be necessary to keep a patient alive.
Where does medical oxygen come from?
Several countries, particularly those with low or medium incomes, are facing oxygen shortages. In India, which has recorded a record number of cases in recent weeks, it is estimated that 17 million cubic meters of oxygen (17 million cubic meters) are needed daily.
According to the Ministry of Health of India, only about seven million cubic meters of oxygen are produced. This deficit has meant that thousands of people with a critical need for oxygen have been sidelined and died as a result.
In 2019, according to the World Bank, of the 102 countries that are part of the medical oxygen export-import trade chain, 10 countries exported up to 80 percent. Belgium was the largest net exporter with $ 23.6 million, followed by France with 14% and then Portugal with 8%.
How is medical oxygen produced?
The air we breathe is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% other gases, including carbon dioxide. Medical oxygen is at least 82% pure oxygen and is produced in industrial facilities before being delivered to hospitals in pressurized gas cylinders or in liquid form in large tanks. Over the past 30 years, most medical oxygen has been produced through the economic process of absorbing pressure oscillation (PSA), which consists of three main phases:
Pressurization: Atmospheric air is compressed and stored in a high pressure vessel.
Adsorption: Air passes through molecular sieves where nitrogen is absorbed by aluminum and silicon compounds known as zeolite. The remaining air is sent through an air damping tank.
Depressurization: Air passes through alternating tanks in a series of cycles to eliminate unwanted gases. The resulting gas is up to 96% pure oxygen. This oxygen is stored in a tank and can then be delivered in oxygen cylinders.