• Hospitals are scouring suppliers for ventilators, life-saving, expensive devices in short supply and required by severely ill COVID-19 patients.
  • One Breath’s decade-long attempt to get its device to market shows the difficulties faced by startups trying to bring medical products to market.
  • Experts say the pandemic may lead to faster approvals life-saving equipment depending on how Irish regulators treat 3-D ventilator prototype. 

The coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe has exposed a shortage of ventilators, with hospitals unable to buy the expensive equipment needed to keep the sickest of infected patients alive.

Hospitals are scouring suppliers for the breathing aids, as COVID-19 deaths worldwide approach 9,000 and the number of those infected tops 200,000, with health officials seeing few signs that the spread is ebbing. Because the coronavirus attacks people’s lungs, compromising their ability to breathe, ventilators have become a crucial tool in the fight to keep sufferers alive.

The problem is that there simply aren’t enough ventilators to go around, with The Economist estimating that if COVID-19 continues to spread at the current rate, the country would run out of spare devices in a month. The New York Times estimates about 172,000 of the devices available in the U.S. though the exact number isn’t clear.  

Government and businesses are taking measures that may make more of the devices available.

This week U.S. President Donald Trump said he would sign the Defense Production Act, which would enable him to order businesses to produce medical supplies as needed. Other countries have taken similar drastic actions, including the U.K. and Germany.

The world’s biggest makers — Medtronic, Philips, Getinge, Draegerwerk — are boosting production, Wall Street Journal reported. General Motors and Ford Motor, both of which have suspended vehicle production, are considering making the machines.

Startups and tech-minded inventors are trying to get new devices to the market, but they may not be in time to help with the current crisis.   

The current cost of a ventilator is why there are so few available, said Doctor Eugene Gu, co-founder of the startup company Coolquit, which helps smokers quit tobacco. The machines can cost as much as $50,000 each, the Times reported.

“Hospitals don’t want to buy a bunch of them if they’re only needed for a short period of time during the coronavirus pandemic and manufacturers don’t want to lower the price because money is more important than, you know, human lives,” Gu tweeted. His company is offering free tele-consultations for people who believe they may have the coronavirus.

Makers of ventilators say they are ramping up production but can’t keep up with demand. Hamilton Medical, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of the equipment, provided an example of the overwhelming demand.

Italy, with more than 35,000 confirmed cases, wanted to order 4,000 of the devices from the Swiss company, Andreas Wieland, Hamilton Medical’s CEO, told the Times. The manufacturer could only provide “something like 400,” he said.

One Breath, a Palo Alto, California-based startup, is trying to get regulatory approval for a low-cost ventilator — about $4,000, according to the Economist — that would have helped ease the strain on the medical system caused by the pandemic. The company’s decade-long attempt to get clearance for its device illustrates how hard it is for new companies to quickly address critical shortages in an emergency.

Still, the need hasn’t gone unnoticed. A group of 300 tech-minded people including engineers and designers built a prototype of a ventilator from 3-D printed parts and inexpensive materials through an open-source hardware project organized through Facebook. It may be cleared for use by Ireland’s Health Services as early as next week, which would go a long way to easing the global shortage.

Venture capital investors are taking note of opportunities in healthcare. VC funding in medical monitoring equipment, which includes ventilators, nearly doubled to $405 million since the year began, from $204 million for the same period last year, according to PitchBook.

Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images