Ventilators, life-saving pieces of medical equipment which help coronavirus patients to breath, have become a political commodity as governments and individuals scramble to obtain them amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Ventilators are crucial for providing care to people critically ill with coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, who often struggle to breathe naturally, explained Dr. Fadi Hamed, Pulmonologist & Critical Care Physician, Critical Care Institute, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
“Ventilators do not cure COVID-19, however, they are able to keep a severely ill patient alive until they recover enough lung function to breathe on their own again,” he added.
But with around half a million people infected by coronavirus globally and hundreds of thousands more cases infected, demand has far outstripped supply – a situation worsened as governments and individuals hoard ventilators or offer them in return for favor.
Data analytics company GlobalData estimated on Monday that there is a supply gap of around 880,000 ventilators globally due to the virus’s outbreak.
“Ventilator shortages are a crucial reality as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to worsen globally. All ventilator manufacturers have full order books and hold little in stock – receiving orders not only from regular customers such as hospitals, but also directly from governments,” said GlobalData Medical Devices Analyst Tina Deng.
One study by the American Hospital Association said that the US would need around 960,000 ventilators for coronavirus hospitalizations. The country has only around 160,000, with another 12,700 in the National Strategic Stockpile, according to reports from the New York Times.
In a news conference earlier this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for sending the state 400 ventilators.
“FEMA says, ‘we are sending 400 ventilators.’ Really? What am I going to do with 400 ventilators, when I need 30,000? You pick the 26,000 people that are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators,” he said.
“You cannot buy them, you cannot find them. Every state is trying to get them, other countries are trying to get them,” Cuomo added.
Countries ban ventilator export
A report from information firm Global Trade Alert on Monday found that 54 governments had enacted export curbs on medical supplies since the beginning of the year.
“Access to medical ventilators is a matter of life and death for many patients that have a severe bout of COVID-19… export curbs on ventilators deny access to this medical equipment to foreign buyers and citizens. Export curbs on related parts and components can slow down or stall production of ventilators,” the report said.
The EU, where half of the world’s ventilators exports are based, has already put in place a pseudo-ban on their export.
The overall trend towards banning ventilator export puts many countries at risk, including in the Middle East, as access to the life-saving technology becomes more limited.
“The human cost of export bans of medical equipment are not something any policymaker wants to have on their conscience,” the report added.
The rich hoard
The wealthy have begun to look to buy their own ventilators in case of a shortage in the general healthcare system.
A report by The Moscow Times found that Russian oligarchs have been setting up clinics in their own homes, complete with ventilators.
“We’ve been able to get one so far and are trying to get two more … But there’s an eight-month waiting list,” a source told The Moscow Times.
Medical device company Medtronic estimates that a hospital grade ventilator costs between $25,000 and $50,000 – out of reach for all but the super wealthy.
With widespread shortages across the planet, each regulator is crucial for those that need it.
Private sector support
Companies have begun to ramp up production to fill shortage. On Wednesday, UK vacuum cleaner-maker Dyson, founded by billionaire James Dyson, said the government had ordered 10,000 prototype ventilators, which the company had designed at a break-neck pace, following a plea from the UK government for private sector involvement.
Car manufacturers Ford, Tesla, and General Motors, have all announced that they have moved production to producing ventilators and masks, after factories shut down due to the effect of the coronavirus on demand.
“We are encouraged by how quickly companies from across industries have mobilized to address the growing challenge we collectively face from COVID-19,” said GE Healthcare President & CEO Kieran Murphy in a statement.
The car manufacturers were similarly responding to a US government request for help in procuring ventilators.
The human resource problem
Healthcare workers have been on the frontlines of combating the coronavirus pandemic, with shortages of workers and extra precautions for safety being in place for them to allow continued work.
However, ventilators require additional training to use, and there simply aren’t enough trained clinicians to provide the support needed, according to Deng.
“To deliver safe and appropriate patient care, healthcare providers need to achieve a thorough understanding of the mechanism of ventilation and operate equipment correctly… In many instances, insufficient training and education result in ineffective use of the devices and greatly threaten patient safety,” she said.