The deadly race to produce ventilators

As Covid-19 cases continue to sweep up its exponential growth curve, the health care system is in the race of its life to prepare for the coming crush of patients. Whether we can win this race depends upon how fast new cases grow, the current resources of our health care system, and how fast we can produce and buy the health care materials we need.

Covid-19 attacks the respiratory system, inflaming the lungs and making breathing difficult. Once the virus starts to affect the lungs, one of the only treatments available is mechanical ventilation, which uses a breathing tube to increase the flow of oxygen and to make the process of drawing a breath easier. Ventilators are used to treat a number of diseases other than Covid-19, and most hospitals have several of them. However, there are currently only enough ventilators to treat patients with diseases other than Covid-19.

The sudden realization the the country needs ventilators has set off a mad dash as hospitals, state governors, and the federal governors frantically try to purchase the few remaining ventilators that are on the market, driving up prices. As this is a global pandemic there is worldwide competition for the ventilators, as well as rich private individuals who are looking to purchase them.

The result has been complete and utter chaos, with most states unable to complete their purchases, with the federal government orders for the national stockpile taking priority. Unfortunately, the national stockpile is controlled by our current criminal administration, who is doling out the supplies according to political favor rather than medical need.

Whether we will have enough ventilators in time depends on the measures the country takes to increase production, purchases, and efficient distribution of ventilators.

The scale of the problem is immense. Ventilators are enormously complicated devices produced with thousands of separate parts. They must be operated in specialized rooms with centralized oxygen supply, by trained technicians. We may need to produce or buy 100,000 ventilators, which would almost double the current supply. There is a possibility of creative solutions, modifying ventilators to take more patients, or designing a system of mobile ventilators to travel to hot spots, but at this point these are untested ideas, not rigorous plans.

My basic analysis of the supply situation (details below) is that we unlikely to significantly increase our supplies of ventilators in the next 1-3 months, thus efforts must focus on the efficient distribution of resources between affected regions. Total monthly production of ventilators in the US is only about 1,500, and that is already after dramatically scaling up production lines. With individual states requiring several thousand ventilators each, production cannot meet requirements.

An allocation plan would mean a plan to determine exactly which areas receive the few new ventilators that are on the market. It would mean a plan to quickly move ventilators, associated equipment, and the necessary operators to the localities that are being hit the hardest by Covid-19. It would mean procedures in place that can modify existing ventilators to handle more than one patient.

In the slightly longer term it would in theory be possible to scale up production if the country could mobilize its economy towards this goal. However, the federal government does not want to take control of the supply chain. Although our president has made noises over the past month about using the Defense Production Act (DPA), its actions have made clear it has no intention of actually using it. In fact, President Trump’s theory of invoking the DPA is similar to Michael Scott’s (from The Office) theory of declaring bankruptcy:

The Office (US) meme i declare bankruptcy on Bingeclock

Under a non-criminal administration, using the DPA would be an idea solution to the problem. The federal government would become the sole purchaser of all ventilators in the country, banning export and private sales. It would promise to purchase the ventilators whether they were ultimately needed or not. It would determine the national requirements and whether new factories are needed or just new production lines. It could force companies to accept contracts to make ventilators, although hopefully it would not need to do this. It would use the same powers to ensure the supply chain of all the components and natural resources are available. It would provide the financial resources and manpower to make the factories run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Under the current administration, however, the problem with using the DPA is that the federal government will be in charge of all of the ventilators. Due to the level of incompetence and corruption, it is likely they will bungle the response.

Private companies are reluctant to increase production on their own because making ventilators means building factories with high fixed costs and large amounts of uncertainty about demand. If the pandemic dies down in 3 months, they will be left with worthless factories and large stocks of unwanted ventilators. As a result, they have been incredibly slow to increase production.

Number of ventilators needed

The key unknown in the ventilator supply situation is the number of ventilators that will be needed to treat Covid-19 patients. Public health estimates vary, from 70,000 to several hundred thousand. A potential complicating factor is that Covid-19 patients are remaining on ventilators a lot longer than is usual, sometimes upwards of two weeks.

One way to get an estimate on the number of ventilators is to first get an estimate of the number of ICU beds needed. If we know roughly the number of ventilators per ICU bed, we can then back out the number of ventilators. A recent Harvard model estimates the number of ICU beds that will be necessary under a variety of different outbreak scenarios. Under a “moderate” scenario, i.e. 40% of the population is infected over 12 months, 150,000 ICU beds will be needed for Covid-19 patients. If half of ICU patients need ventilators, this mean 75,000 ventilators are needed for Covid-19 patetiens alone.

Some studies suggest that between 1% and 2% of COVID-19 patients require ventilation. One study of patients in Wuhan, China, found that 5 percent of individuals with coronavirus ended up in the ICU, while 2.3 percent needed invasive ventilation (Guan 2020). A separate study on Wuhan found the rate of invasive to non-invasive ventilation is roughly 50-50.

Several studies have estimate the number of total patients that will need to be ventilated due to the virus over the course of the pandemic, ranging from 64,000 for a moderate outbreak, to 320,000 in an intermediate outbreak, to 720,000 in a pandemic similar to the 1918 Spanish flu. A recent AHA webinar estimate the total number of patients needed to be ventilated is 960,000. It is unclear how many patients will need to be ventilated at once, which will determine the number of ventilators necessary.

Individual states are desperate for ventilators, and have their own estimates of what they need. New York alone may need more than 18,000 ventilators, California may need 10,000 ventilators, and Illinois may need 4,000 ventilators. Maine is trying to purchase 300 units. Louisiana wants to purchase 12,000.

The ventilators we have

The United States has approximately 62,000 full featured mechanical ventilators and 98,738 older ventilators available in hospitals. Scraping together ventilators from other health care facilities yields 200,000 ventilators. Many of the are older units may not be capable of sustained use or of adequately supporting patients. This includes the approximately 12,700 in the National Strategic Stockpile.

But remember, these are just the ventilators that are need for Covid-19 patients. Most currently extant ventilators are being used for non Covid-19 patients. To estimate the number of new ventilators that must be produced, we must first calculate the current stock which is free to treat Covid-19 patients — “unoccupied ventilators” and are not already in use. In Illinois, there are 1,467 ventilators available, but 75% (1,093) are in use, leaving 374 available. In New York there are about 9,150 ventilators, but the vast majority are being used. Even with the state’s own emergency stockpile, there are only 2,800 (30%) available. To get a rough estimate of the stock of unoccupied ventilators that can treat Covid-19 patients, we assume 25% of the current stock of ventilators are free, which yields a total of 50,000 unoccupied ventilators. This is at the upper end of a recent study that found that US hospitals could absorb from 26,000 to 56,000 in the event of a pandemic.

Distribution of Ventilators

The distribution of ventilators is a disaster. There is no system for determining who is getting the ventilators, or to shift them to hospitals that need them the most. State governments are competing on the open market with foreign and private bids. An illustration of this is the fact that Tesla recently bought 1,000 ventilators, which they then donated. The National Strategic Stockpile has 12,700 ventilators in reserve, which are currently being doled out by Donald Trump based on political goals.

Individual hospitals are holding back from purchasing ventilators because of their high costs, and the fact that these may only have a short-term spike in demand. Hospitals do not have the financial resources to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these new machines. Lower-cost home ventilators can’t generate the precise air delivery needed to treat potentially fatal coronavirus symptoms while hospitals are reluctant to stockpile higher-cost devices in numbers beyond what’s ordinarily needed. Top ICU models are mostly imported from foreign manufacturers.

Production of Ventilators

Production of new ventilators in the United States will be a challenge. About half of production of ventilators in in the United States, while half is imported. Some countries — including Germany — have decreed that life-saving equipment be prioritized for their citizens. There are fewer than a dozen domestic manufacturers that are largely backlogged with international orders; the United States has been slower than other countries at implementing policies for speeding up ventilator production.

US manufacturing facilities in the United States are already at 100 percent production capacity, and producers and are looking to ramp up production by another 15 or 20 percent. Additional production will take months. Companies are adding third shifts and repurposing production lines.

Medtronic is based in Ireland for tax purposes, but most of its market is in the United States. Medtronic produces ventilator in Galway, Ireland, where the company makes “PB980” and “PB840” ventilators. By bolstering and transferring staff to Western Ireland, the facility will also operate on a 24-7 basis. Medtronic has already doubled its production of high end ICU units and produces 1,000 per month. Production is difficult because there are 1,500 unique parts supplied from 14 countries. Medtronic said it is aiming to produce 500 per week.

Vyaire is based in Chicago, Il, and has already doubled its production, and now produces about 170 per month.

Ventec produces about 250 mid-range ventilators per month, midway between home ventilators and ICU units. The devices have a reduced need for medical personnel to manage patients.They are trying to ramp up production to 1,000 per month within 90 days.

Total production is thus 1,420 per month.

Although there have been large amounts of headlines touting potential new manufacturers like GM and Tesla, it is unknown if this will actually take place. Companies are wary of investing in building factories that produce ventilators which may not have a demand in the many months it will take to ramp up production. As recently as March 19th, GM put out a statement that “Right now it’s just an internal feasibility study on whether it‘s possible for us to help out in the production of medical equipment”.

Royal Phillips is a major manufacturer of ventilators and is ramping up production, but serves a global market and not just the US; it is unclear how many can be shipped to us.

Resmed is a San Diego based company but serves a global market, and produces ventilators in Singapore, Sydney, and Shanghai. The seem to produce mainly the mask-based noninvasive ventilator.

Production of ventilator parts

A potential bottleneck of ventilator production will be the supply of parts. There are shortages all along the supply chain, including circuit boards, tubes, and other parts.

“The limiting step here is not final manufacturing,” one manufacturer said. “We are good at that. We can scale that. The limiting step is component supply.”

Finding parts such as O-rings, lithium-ion batteries and certain processor chips have been a problem.

Jacob Robbins

Author: Jacob Robbins

Jacob Robbins is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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