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Coronavirus: the great ventilator race

April 1, 2020

Governments and medical professionals around the globe are scrambling to get their hands on life-saving ventilators needed to help coronavirus patients. Israel has even converted a missile production line for the cause.

Governments, companies race to make more life-saving ventilators
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Becker

Drastic medical equipment shortages in even the most developed economies have put the globe in a collective race against time to produce the ventilators needed to save people from the deadly respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, officially called SARS-CoV-2.    

A ventilator is a device that helps move air in and out of the lungs when a patient is having difficulty, or cannot, breathe.

Here's how some governments and companies are attempting to beat the virus — and the clock:


In France, respirator maker Air Liquid has teamed up with car parts maker Valeo, car maker PSA and electrical equipment company Schneider Electric to produce some 10,000 ventilators by mid-May. Around 250 ventilators will be delivered to emergency rooms in the next week, French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday.

He also announced that France will need to boost its domestic production of medical gear as the international battle for medical supplies makes importing an increasingly unviable option. 

"The priority today is to produce more in Europe and France," Macron said. "By the end of the year, I want us to be fully and completely independent (in production)." The French government has earmarked €4 billion ($4.4 billion) in additional funding for the state health budget to fund the masks and ventilators.

Read more: Coronavirus: What are the lockdown measures across Europe?


Israel, which has reported nearly 5,000 cases of coronavirus and 17 related deaths, has converted a facility for producing missiles into a production line for ventilators, the country's Defense Ministry said Tuesday. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has warned that Israel only has 2,000 ventilators and is in dire need of more. 

"This morning, the production line was inaugurated in the classified missile production department of IAI, after which dozens of ventilators were tested and assembled," a statement from the ministry said, referring to state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, adding that the factory was converted in a matter of days.

"We cannot remain dependent on procurement from other countries," Bennett said, echoing France. Like in many countries where there is a shortage of equipment, in Israel medical professionals and device makers are collaborating with the country's military to speed up production.

3D printers tackling the coronavirus


In the US, car manufacturer Ford and industrial giant General Electric (GE) have pledged to collectively produce 50,000 ventilators in the next 100 days. Production will begin on April 20, with some 500 employees working nearly round the clock in three shifts. 

Ford is also working on building plastic face shields and has supported US conglomerate 3M in its production of respirators. US President Donald Trump, who has come under criticism for not responding quickly enough to the outbreak, on Friday invoked a war-time law to order GM to manufacture necessary medical equipment, despite the company already declaring it would do so. 

Many other manufacturers have said they will retool production lines to make medical equipment. Electric car and green energy company Tesla will begin producing ventilators at its solar panel plant in New York while German carmaker Volkswagen said it is testing using 3D printers to make ventilator parts.


Norway, which on Tuesday saw its first daily decline in coronavirus hospital admissions, said it had placed orders for around 1,000 ventilators with Norwegian companies in a move that will double the number of ventilators available to hospitals by May. 

"Norway will not need all of them. This means we can contribute internationally with essential equipment for patients who need help breathing," Prime Minister Erna Solberg said on Tuesday.

The ventilators are being produced by a family-owned Norwegian medical company that is working in cooperation with a hydraulic equipment manufacturer as well as medical personnel and the Norwegian military. Around 4,447 people in Norway have tested positive for coronavirus, with 28 people dying from the infection. 


The UK on Monday revealed that it had placed an order for 15,000 ventilators, more than the government says is needed to handle the country's outbreak. A consortium of engineering firms that calls itself Ventilator Challenge UK said it would begin on its order of 10,000 machines this week. The group includes aerospace giant Airbus, engineering company Rolls Royce, defense and aerospace company BAE systems and a series of Formula One motor racing teams.

Another 10,000 devices have reportedly been ordered from vacuum manufacturer Dyson, however this order involves a new design that would first need regulatory approval. If all orders are delivered, the UK will have 41,000 ventilators, 11,000 more than the 30,000 it said it needed for the outbreak.

kp/sri (AP, Reuters)

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