Shortage of ventilators to face the coronavirus
As the United States braces for an onslaught of coronavirus cases, hospitals and governments are confronting a grim reality: There are not nearly enough lifesaving ventilator machines to go around, and there is no way to solve the problem before the disease reaches full throttle.
Desperate hospitals say they can’t find anywhere to buy the medical devices, which help patients breathe and can be the difference between life and death for those facing the most dire respiratory effects of the coronavirus.
American and European manufacturers say they can’t speed up production enough to meet soaring demand, at least not anytime soon.
And while the acute shortages are global, not just in the United States, some European governments are deploying wartime-mobilization tactics to get factories churning out more ventilators — and to stop domestic companies from exporting them.
The United States, by contrast, has been slow to develop a national strategy for accelerating the production of ventilators. That appears to reflect in part the federal government’s sluggish reaction to the coronavirus, with President Donald Trump and others initially playing down the threat. This week, Trump urged governors to find ways to procure new ventilators. “Try getting it yourselves,” he said.
That will be hard and in some cases impossible.
“The reality is there is absolutely not enough,” said Andreas Wieland, chief executive of Hamilton Medical in Switzerland, one of the world’s largest makers of ventilators. “We see that in Italy, we saw that in China, we see it in France and other countries. We could sell I don’t know how many.”
Wieland’s company is shipping machines as fast it can get them off the assembly line. He has moved office workers to the factory and hired more employees. Even so, he can’t keep up with the crush of orders. “Italy wanted to order 4,000, but there’s not a chance,” he said. “We sent them something like 400.”
The coronavirus attacks people’s lungs, in some cases compromising their ability to breathe. Ventilators, which deliver air to the lungs through a tube placed in the windpipe, are a crucial tool to keep these patients alive. The computerized, bedside machines can cost as much as $50,000.
Hospitals in the United States have roughly 160,000 ventilators. There are a further 12,700 in the National Strategic Stockpile, a cache of medical supplies maintained by the federal government to respond to national emergencies.
That probably won’t be enough if the number of serious coronavirus cases keeps climbing.
“In a worst-case scenario it would be very difficult to have a sufficient number,” said Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Obama administration.
In the United States, roughly half of the intensive-care ventilators in use were made by foreign companies, including Dräger and Getinge, according to estimates by ECRI, an independent nonprofit group that evaluates medical technology. There are fewer than a dozen American companies — including giants like General Electric and Medtronic — that make ventilators, according to Greg Crist, a spokesman for AdvaMed, the trade group that represents American medical device makers. They are scrambling to accelerate production.
But the machines are complicated, made up of hundreds of smaller parts produced by companies all over the world. There is no simple way to substantially increase the output.