In the face of a projected national shortage, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has offered to manufacture life-saving ventilators. There’s just one problem: The companies actually making medical ventilators today don’t think he can pull it off.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the world, officials around the U.S. have warned that, unless drastic measures are taken to create more, will we see demand for ventilators exceed the current supply. When, and if, this happens depends on numerous hard-to-predict factors such as the success of efforts to “flatten the curve.” As such, Musk’s claim on Friday that he’s already started the work to build more seems at first like a blessing.
“Yes, we’re working on ventilators,” wrote the billionaire, “even though I think they probably won’t be needed.”
This echoes earlier statements by Musk, insisting “ventilators are not difficult,” albeit time-consuming to make.
Tesla makes cars with sophisticated hvac systems. SpaceX makes spacecraft with life support systems. Ventilators are not difficult, but cannot be produced instantly. Which hospitals have these shortages you speak of right now?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 19, 2020
One company currently making ventilators at scale is Dräger. Founded in Lübeck, Germany, Dräger, which employs 13,000 people spread across 190 countries, manufactures and sells multiple different types of medical ventilators.
“The core technology of today’s ventilators is fundamentally different from the manufacturing operations of car manufacturers.”
“The global spread of coronavirus is a concern for us at Dräger too,” the company wrote on its website. “We are doing everything we can to maintain the global supply of products and services to our customers, even in these challenging circumstances.”
When reached for comment about Musk’s stated plan to start making ventilators, a Dräger spokesperson politely threw cold water on the idea.
“The core technology of today’s ventilators (electronics and software that control the pneumatics) is fundamentally different from the manufacturing operations of car manufacturers,” explained company spokesperson Melanie Kamann over email. “The complexity of outsourcing such a manufacturing operation is quite high, especially considering the technological and regulatory requirements.”
Dräger wasn’t the only ventilator manufacturer seemingly unimpressed with Musk’s claims. Medtronic, a global medical device company operating in over 150 countries, has long manufactured ventilators. When asked whether or not the Tesla CEO could reasonably produce ventilators, Medtronic spokesperson John Jordan cautioned that it takes more than just a technically proficient team and the desire.
“Ventilator manufacturing is a complex process that relies on a skilled workforce, a global supply chain and a rigorous regulatory regime to ensure patient safety,” he wrote over email.
Kamann emphasized that even if Musk and his team had the technical chops to manufacturer ventilators, it likely wouldn’t increase overall supply in the short term anyway.
“The effective operation of a production facility for ventilators is only possible in an integrated supply chain with sub-suppliers of components,” wrote Kamann. “To meet the technological and quality requirements, close integration and exchange are necessary. New production lines would only generate additional output if the supply industry were also doubled, which is impossible in the short term from the perspective of regulatory qualification.”
Simply put, even if Musk figured out how to make medical ventilators, he might only end up taking much-needed parts away from existing certified manufacturers.
We reached out to Tesla for a response to the above claims, but received no immediate response.
Offering to help in a time of need is both valuable and admirable, and should be lauded. However, in times of crisis, sometimes it’s just as important to know when to get out of the way.
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