A clinical trial involving experts in Belfast will assess whether treating critically-ill Covid-19 patients earlier with non-invasive ventilation could cut the need to use invasive mechanical ventilators later on.
The trial, jointly run by Queen's University and the University of Warwick and involving up to 4,000 UK patients, will seek to find alternatives to ventilators.
It comes as the Government has been working to boost stocks of the machines, which help support the breathing of very ill coronavirus patients, giving their bodies time to fight the infection and recover.
Downing Street has said the UK has about 10,000 ventilators available with a further 2,000 on order, and provisional orders for thousands more subject to regulatory approval.
It is estimated the country needs about 18,000 of the machines as the peak of infections approaches, with reports suggesting up to 30% of all critically-ill patients will need invasive ventilation.
This kind of mechanical ventilation requires a tube to be inserted either into the mouth and down the throat or, via a tracheotomy, directly into the windpipe.
The need for ventilation also draws on vital equipment and the highly-trained staff needed to operate the kit.
Announcing the recovery-RS (respiratory support) trial, the universities said it was hoped that by finding effective alternatives to invasive ventilation, they could improve patient outcomes. Researchers will compare the effects of standard care, incubation and invasive ventilation, with non-invasive treatments like use of the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) method, with air delivered through a tight-fitting face mask.
It will also compare use of the high flow nasal oxygen (HFNO) system, which delivers warmed oxygen through tubes in the nose, and the standard care of air delivered via a mask.
The study was based on the theory non-invasive interventions at an earlier stage could cut the need for invasive mechanical ventilation.
Professor Danny McAuley, of Queen's University, commented: "We urgently need this trial to test what is the best way to deliver respiratory support as an alternative to ventilators."