The UK government has turned to a wartime solution, enlisting manufacturers including luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce and vacuum company Dyson to produce this essential equipment.
Helen Meese, vice-chair of the biomedical engineering division at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, told CNN Business there was “a major need” for ventilators, particularly as the world prepares for “quite a drought of these devices over the coming weeks” as we reach the peak of the pandemic.
The World Health Organization has urged all countries to “optimize the availability” of lung ventilation equipment, which assists or replaces breathing functions for critically ill patients, pumping oxygen into the blood to keep organs functioning. “Oxygen therapy is the major treatment intervention for patients with severe Covid-19,” the organization said.
In February, when the city of Wuhan was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, China turned to the rest of the world to help with a severe shortage. China’s industrial equipment department said it had produced more than 15,000 ventilators and was setting up “accelerated channels” to import more.
The head of the German agency for disease control and prevention on Wednesday called for more ventilators to combat coronavirus, while New York officials said the state was “desperately” looking for extra machines.
And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged more than 60 leading manufacturers “to help the UK step up production of vital medical equipment, such as ventilators,” his spokesperson said.
Johnson asked manufacturers “to rise to this immediate challenge” by offering their skills and expertise in all parts of the process, from design and testing, to production and shipping.
Dyson, best known for its vacuum cleaners and hand-driers, told CNN Business in a statement it was using its “expertise and resources” to work with other companies in finding a “rapid solution.”
Meggitt, an engineering firm, said in a statement on Thursday that it “is leading a consortium of UK aerospace suppliers working to develop and produce” ventilators in large volumes following the British government’s request.
A spokesperson for Rolls-Royce said the carmaker “will look to provide any practical help we can” and Vauxhall also said it was “keen to assist.”
A spokesman for the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said that approval for such devices can take weeks or months, but said it was taking swift action in the “interests of the protection of health.” The agency is helping the government draw up specifications for ventilators and intends to work with companies to ensure they meet quality and safety standards.
Pressed on Wednesday over a ventilator shortage in the United States, Trump told reporters “we are ordering thousands and thousands of ventilators and they’re complex. These are complex machines.”
Meese, from the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said such efforts marked a “wonderful opportunity and a wonderful idea,” but sounded a note of caution.
She said medical device regulation was as complex as that of aerospace engineering. “It’s very very precise, very rigorous. And so just being able to turn production lines manufacturing processes over is not something that can be done overnight, it will take many weeks.”
She said that while companies had moved fast in the past 48 hours, firms that did not specialize in medical technology would take months to be able to build parts from scratch. Instead, she said, they might be able to build hand-held devices, refurbish older existing mechanical devices and make simple parts. This could allow ventilator companies to focus on the larger jobs.
A spokesman for US-based company Vyaire said it had supplied ventilators to China and Italy, and was hiring extra staff to more than double its manufacturing capability.
Meese cautioned that one of the biggest problems would be finding materials and maintaining supply, as well as “making sure that it’s the right equipment for the right purpose.”
Doctors have warned that finding staff to operate the machines in already stretched healthcare systems will be a challenge. Dr. Rinesh Parmar, chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, said “the elephant in the room is that we have a critical shortage of intensive care doctors and nurses in the [National Health Service] who can look after ventilated patients” and said staff would need to be retrained.
Meese said she was impressed by the “Dunkirk spirit” and atmosphere of international cooperation, with retired engineers offering to help at great personal risk, but said the potential had to be “tempered with the timescale,” as the pandemic heads to its peak.
“We didn’t necessarily make tanks overnight, and we’re not going to be able to make medical devices overnight.”