“On Monday we will detail some very encouraging news,” about efforts to increase the nation’s supply of ventilators available for critical patients, Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the Coronavirus Task Force, told reporters at a White House press briefing Saturday.
“We’ve learned that ventilators that are used by anesthesiologists can be converted” to use for patients who are being treated for respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, Pence said, explaining that it would involve modifying each of the machines slightly.
Pence said medical manufacturers are already working with the Food & Drug Administration to make that happen as quickly as possible, a move he said “will increase the supply of ventilators by tens of thousands” because these are machines that are already in hospitals and clinics across the country.
“We will have a lot of detail Monday,” Pence promised near the conclusion of Saturday’s press briefing.
In addition to the new method of repurposing existing machines, Pence said that the White House based task force has been inundated with offers of help from the nation’s business and industrial sectors to manufacture several kinds of desperately needed medical supplies in the weeks and months ahead. “Many of them are literally surging forward to create more ventilators,” Pence explained.
On Sunday Peter Navarro, the US Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy told a press conference at the White House that following the president’s decision earlier in the week to invoke the powers of the Defense Production Act, which is usually reserved for wartime, “We’re seeing the greatest mobilization of the industrial base since World War II.”
New York’s Governor Says Ventilators Are ‘To This War What Missiles Were to World War II’
When all of the coronavirus containment, mitigation and treatment efforts have failed and a patient infected with COVID-19 becomes so sick that they are having severe difficulty breathing, the one critical item they need in the midst of this global pandemic is a bedside medical device called a ventilator…and there are simply not enough of them in the United States to treat the volume of patients who are expected to descend upon hospitals in the coming weeks and months.
“It’s ventilators, ventilators, ventilators – that is the greatest need,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said this week.
The World Health Organization estimates that 15 percent of those who contract COVID-19 will develop symptoms that eventually require hospitalization with oxygen support and 5 percent of them will need to placed in an Intensive Care Unit where they will most likely require a ventilator in order to breathe.
There are about 160,000 ventilators in existing hospital treatment rooms across the United States and the Centers for Disease Control have a Strategic National Stockpile of 12,700 ventilators and the Pentagon announced this week that they can contribute 2,000 more military-style ventilators to the total, which would bring the number to just under 175,000 ventilator-equipped beds in America.
That may sound like a lot but experts say it is not nearly enough to cover a nation of 330 million people if COVID-19 cases suddenly start to “spike” exponentially, especially in urban population centers.
Governor Cuomo said this week that New York would need at least 30,000 ventilators at the ready within 45 days time to handle the coronavirus contingencies that it is bracing for now. Currently the state has a tenth that many – 3,000 ventilators – available and the likelihood of being able to acquire enough in the meantime is low.
In a letter to the New York Times at the beginning of the week, Governor Cuomo said that some experts estimate that on the order of 21 million people in the United States could require hospitalization at the same time in the United States if the virus spreads unchecked this summer; although only a percentage of them would require ventilation.
There Are Less Than a Dozen Major Medical Companies Worldwide That Manufacture Ventilators
Globally there are only a handful of companies that make ventilators and every one of them, large and small, has been inundated with orders since the outbreak began spreading past China at the beginning of the year.
The real problem is that, unlike the air-filtering face masks and latex gloves that are also suddenly in short supply, ventilators are sophisticated machines that require a lot of computerized electronic components in addition to their intricate mechanical components which can include air pumps and humidifying infusers depending on the particular type. Ventilators are usually ordered months in advance of being needed and do not lend themselves to mass production.
In Europe, the Swedish medical manufacturer Getinge said this week that they have heard the worldwide cry for more ventilators and they are increasing production at their factory in Solna, Sweden by 60% in 2020 compared to 2019.
“To meet the increased demand for ventilators we are adding a second production shift in our production facility”, says Elin Frostehav, Vice President Critical Care at Getinge. “The produced ventilators will be shipped globally based on current customer demands”.
Last year Getinge produced more than 10,000 ventilators which means a 60 percent incrrease could amount to over 16,000 coming off the assembly line in 2020 but the company cautioned that even that increase is “pending availability of supply parts from its sub-contractors.”
Germany Is Enlisting Auto Manufactures With 3D Printers to Mass Produce Ventilators
Volkswagon confirmed over the weekend that it has been approached by the German government and asked to see if it can use its collection of over 125 3-D printers which normally make prototype car parts to produce medical parts instead.
In an article on the effort, Bloomberg News reported that General Motors in the United States is making a similar effort to see if it can convert some of its unused factory space over to ventilator production.
Irish medical manufacturer Medtronic issued a statement Wednesday highlighting the “acute need” for more ventilators across many of the 150 countries where they already supply medical products. “The company has increased production by more than 40 percent to date and is on track to more than double its capacity to manufacture and supply ventilators in response to the urgent needs of patients and healthcare systems across the globe confronting COVID-19,” the Medtronic statement said, continuing “Ventilator manufacturing is a complex process that relies on a skilled workforce, a global supply chain and a rigorous regulatory regime to ensure patient safety.”
“In recent weeks, Medtronic has identified additional opportunities to further increase its ventilator manufacturing capacity. In the company’s Ireland ventilator manufacturing facility, the company currently has over 250 employees dedicated to ventilator manufacturing and plans to more than double that number, including transferring staff from other Medtronic sites to support ramp up activities. Additional manufacturing shifts have been put in place and new manufacturing shift patterns are being introduced to bring the plant to 24/7 operation. With a strong commitment across Medtronic and its suppliers – combined with the increased staffing – the company expects to be able to more than double its manufacturing capacity for ventilators.”
Calling the pandemic a “dynamic global issue,” the statement said Medtronic is prioritizing high risk/high needs areas for ventilator allocation on a weekly basis for global distribution through its supply chain.
“Medtronic recognizes the demand for ventilators in this environment has far outstripped supply,” said Bob White, executive vice president and president of the Minimally Invasive Therapies Group at Medtronic. “No single company will be able to fill the current demands of global healthcare systems. However, with all manufacturers increasing their production and through partnerships with governments, hospitals and global health organizations, Medtronic is committed to getting more ventilators into the market and to the right locations in the world to help doctors and patients dealing with COVID-19.”
CEO Frans van Houton of the giant Dutch medical conglomerate Royal Philips said in a statement late this week “We are ramping up our production in China since the restart in February, 2020, where we are now above 80% capacity utilization. To meet the increased demand for our professional healthcare products and solutions, across the globe we are in the process of increasing their production and roll-out. In particular, this relates to certain diagnostic imaging systems, patient monitors and ventilators.”
A Philips spokesman added that the company is adding manufacturing lines, increasing shifts and hiring more workers at it’s plants in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia. Philips is also trying to figure out if some of the other specialized medical equipment it makes can be “re-purposed” in a hurry to treat COVID-19 patients.
Van Houton explained that not only the business side of Philips, but also the company’s charitable foundation have been focused on the pandemic. “In January, the Foundation donated a range of diagnostic imaging, patient monitoring and respiratory therapy equipment and supplies to the Thunder God Mountain Hospital in Wuhan, China. The Foundation is currently working closely with Philips’ teams in Kenya, South Sudan and Italy to support their national healthcare systems, all of which have been deeply impacted,” van Houten wrote.
Elon Musk Tweets That His Companies Tesla and SpaceX Can Make Ventilators
Billionaire Elon Musk suggested on Twitter this week that “if” there were to be a shortage of ventilators then his high-tech companies – Tesla Motors and SpaceX – could use their expertise, especially SpaceX’s experience having designed life support systems on spacecraft, to begin making ventilators. Musk was immediately called out by noted statistician and TV commentator Nate Silver who founded the website FiveThirtyEight.com who suggested the time to start doing that is now.
In the United States, a spokesperson for GE Healthcare, which manufactures ventilators at a factory in Wisconsin, told Heavy “GE has robust business continuity plans, and we are increasing out manufacturing capacity and output of equipment that is important in the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 patients, all while ensuring safe operations.”
Marion Varec, spokesperson for Dräger North America, said that normally the company produces “several hundred devices a week” at its factory in Lübeck, Germany. “The process generally takes less than a week, which includes component assembly, software programming and rigorous quality control testing,” Varec explained, adding “We are seeing a significant increase in demand for our ventilators and the corresponding accessory products worldwide. To support this world-wide crisis, Dräger is taking great effort to further increase production capacity to fulfill our social responsibility…and we are exploring additional ways to further increase ventilator production capacity.”
ResMed, a medical company based in San Diego, which describes itself as a global leader in non-invasive ventilators is currently “working closely with governments worldwide to better understand their fast-evolving product demands, and how we can best meet them,” Public Relations Director Jayme Rubenstein said this week.
“Our devices are used with a mask versus the patient being intubated, and all require a doctor’s prescription,” Rubenstein explained. “ResMed is taking every measure to maximize production of these devices while also ensuring the health and safety of ResMedians worldwide, with a focus on helping deliver them to the patients who need them most.”
Rubenstein added that ResMed’s supply chain is not centered around China, relying instead on factories in Sydney, Australia and Singapore so “at present, we can meet the global demand for our products. If demand were to increase significantly, that could change.”