A better answer to the ventilator shortage as the pandemic rages on

mask cov

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Torbjørn Netland, Chair of production and operations management, ETH Zurich

  • Last year, 77,000 new ventilators were enough to meet the market demand of the entire planet. In April, New York City alone forecasts a need for 30,000 additional machines;
  • Some ventilator manufacturers have already boosted their production by 30-50% but, by themselves, can’t deliver the 500 or 1000% growth in production required;
  • The world’s top supply chains could pool resources and expertise to help ventilator-makers, focusing on six areas of support.

An epidemic is an emotional issue. With the lives of our friends and loved ones on the line, we tend to respond with the heart first, then the head.

“Close the borders! Ground the planes!” Such responses are natural and understandable, but, taken too far, may become counterproductive. Social distancing for individuals is an unfortunate necessity; for countries, the reflex threatens to turn into a terrible policy. The same hoarding impulse to take care of your own, which has led to unnecessarily empty toilet paper shelves all over the world, may exacerbate a far more serious shortage: getting ventilators to the people who need them.


Health ministries all over the world face the same dreadful equation: last year, 77,000 new ventilators were enough to meet the market demand of the entire planet. In April, New York City alone forecasts a need for 30,000 additional machines. No one has a real idea of what the total demand is likely to be before the epidemic ends.

Where will we get all these machines? Myopic politicians everywhere see more domestic production as the solution to the ventilator shortage and for some products and some countries that may well be part of the answer. But when you look at where the ventilator companies are located and where they source the 700-plus parts that go into them, it’s easy to see that a better answer is not hoarding machines, 3D printing or cobbling together MacGyver-style contraptions. In the short-term, the only way to succeed is by getting the world’s most established ventilator manufacturers to mass-produce many more units and fast.

Unfortunately, just at the time when we need them most, the global supply chains that could deliver all those parts and products at high velocity are being dismantled. Such systems have gotten a bad name in recent years, and are even slandered now as somehow bringing on the pandemic. However, if the goal is to save the lives of as many coronavirus victims as possible, we should be looking for ways to supercharge ventilator makers’ global production capacities, not hobble them. International trade may leave many things to be desired, but if your goal is to keep as many people breathing as possible over the next months, you need all those supply chains intact and growing.

Stay global

Scaling the ventilator-makers’ plants has several obvious advantages. First, the top ventilator manufacturers – Gelinge, Hamilton Medical, Dräger, Mindray, Medtronic, Löwenstein, Vyaire Medical, Philips, GE Heathcare, and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, among others – don’t need to retool their whole production lines before they can deliver. They can also guarantee cost-efficient production, an absolute necessity to supply developing markets in Africa and elsewhere.

There is a catch: although some of these manufacturers have already boosted their production by 30-50%, by themselves they can’t deliver the 500 or 1000% growth needed to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, later this year. Not only do their relatively small plants have limited capacity to expand, but their supply chains are likely to run into shortages and other problems as they try to meet the demand.

Unprecedented demand for respiratory medical devices in the US
Unprecedented demand for respiratory medical devices in the US
Image: AdvaMed

Fortunately, meeting this challenge is not impossible, only difficult.

To help all those people, ventilator manufacturers will need the support of a larger, global supply chain. The World Health Organization doesn’t need to commandeer all the ventilation-related manufacturing capacity and transportation, but the world’s most advanced supply chains – UPS, FedEx, DHL, Kuehne + Nagel, Panalpina, Nippon Express, the national post services and even national military procurement arms – should be working together to help ventilator manufacturers and their suppliers meet this single aim. Just as pharmaceutical companies and researchers are working together to produce a vaccine, the world’s top supply chains could pool resources and expertise to make sure these companies get what they need.

Six tasks should top their agenda:

1. Map the ventilator supply chain: A precision instrument manufacturer like a ventilator-maker may require components from nine layers of subcontractors in dozens of different countries. In ordinary times, it’s enough to contract with reliable subcontractors to deliver those parts when needed, but in a crisis, demand exceeds that supply. The maker needs to know: what parts are needed and where can they be sourced? Which components are most likely to be in short supply? Is the component necessary or can something more readily available be used?

2. Trace better pathways: Consider the best ways to get those parts to the manufacturer and what it would take to expand capacity. Is there any overlap in supply chains between industries, for example, that could facilitate easier shipments? Could we establish global, fast-response logistic networks through air traffic hubs?

3. Forecast demand: Plot where demand is growing and where the next coronavirus epicentres are likely to be. Leading research centres are already contributing daily updates and their analytics could be used to manage orders fairly and efficiently. Could artificial intelligence, which may otherwise have little application during the ventilator crisis, play an important role here?

4. Recruit more help: Which expert, at each level of this supply chain, is best positioned to improve its capacity? Amazon, for example, has temporarily refocused all its delivery capacity on medical supplies. General Motors is working with Ventec, an established ventilation maker, to add capacity. In the UK, Dyson, the vacuum cleaner producer, is ramping up production of a new, internally designed device. Who else might have useful expertise?

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

5. Prepare the operators: One manufacturer said recently in Der Spiegel that he believes the biggest challenge in connecting patients to ventilators will be finding enough trained people to operate them. Can the machine be made more operator-friendly by subtracting features? Does the documentation need to be improved or training simplified? Could we start training healthcare workers now to run the ventilators that will arrive in three or six months? Can we deliver real-time instruction through the web?

6. Look for alternatives: The above tasks should take priority, but during this global crisis, we must also look for substitute products. Many ambulances have respirators as part of their standard equipment. For the duration of the emergency, reserve mobile respirators could be repurposed. Could lower-tech solutions, such as hand pumps, which saved lives in Copenhagen during a 1952 polio epidemic, play a role?

Finally, this task force will need to maintain this global, strategic view all through this emergency. If we want to be as effective and efficient as we can to solve the healthcare issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to take a broad, systemic perspective. The virus doesn’t worry about boundaries; we shouldn’t either.


the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Future-proofing the European banking market – removing the obstacles to exit

Fair Taxation: EU updates list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions

At last Germany to negotiate the costs for a really cohesive Eurozone

How biotechnology is evolving in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Mali: Presidential elections critical to consolidate democracy, says UN peacekeeping chief

From ‘strength to strength’ UN-African Union security partnership growing, Security Council hears

Gender parity has a huge role to play in the fight to save our oceans

New EU rules to thwart money laundering and terrorist financing

Water supply a human right but Greeks to lose their functioning utilities

India is now the world’s 5th largest economy

Traffic congestion cost the US economy nearly $87 billion in 2018

UN chief applauds Bangladesh for ‘opening borders’ to Rohingya refugees in need

What happiness can teach us about how we measure human development

Merkel: Nationalism and egoism must never have a chance again in Europe

Why EU’s working and unemployed millions remain uncertain or even desperate about their future

EU Member States test their cybersecurity preparedness for free and fair EU elections

EU-US relations on the dawn of the Trump era

How India will consume in 2030: 10 mega trends

Eurozone plans return to growth

Bitpay @ TheNextWeb 2014: Innovation’s Best Friend

A Sting Exclusive: Healthy oceans amidst COVID-19, written by the United Nations Under-Secretary General

5 reasons why reading books is good for you

Ben Stiller’s new role, more about hope than humour, as he’s named Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR

Gas pipeline in the European Union. (Copyright: EU, 2012 / Source: EC - Audiovisual Service / Photo: Ferenc Isza)

EU Investment Bank approves € 1.5bn loan for Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP)

JADE President opens JADE Spring Meeting 2014

Coronavirus could trigger a hunger pandemic – unless urgent action is taken

Global leaders and companies pledge to reduce the gender pay gap by 2030

DR Congo: Following second brutal assault on Ebola clinic, UN health chief vows to continue serving ‘most vulnerable’

Eurozone examines the prospect of issuing debt paper jointly

Erasmus+ will finance existing UK-EU mobility in the event of no-deal Brexit

For how long and at what cost can the ECB continue printing trillions to keep euro area going?

Global South cooperation ‘vital’ to climate change fight, development, Guterres tells historic Buenos Aires summit

Statement by President von der Leyen on recent developments related to Iran and Iraq

Can Southeast Asia keep up with growing energy demand?

EU and New Zealand launch trade negotiations

Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino died – here are more species on the verge of extinction

Coronavirus: First case confirmed in Gulf region, more than 6,000 worldwide

These scientists are using sound waves to filter plastic fibres from washing machine wastewater

Who is culpable in the EU for Ukraine’s defection to Russia?

Who is responsible for public health? The tendencies and its benefits –or not– on Health Education around the world

Fed, ECB take positions to face the next global financial crisis; the Brits uncovered

This Pacific island has banned fishing to allow the marine ecosystem to recover

5 amazing schools that will make you wish you were young again

Brexit: Ensuring a smooth transition for car producers and safety on the roads

UN chief hails Libyan leaders’ agreement to hold general election

Amsterdam has a bubble barrier to catch canal plastic

Turkey: MEPs cut support by €70m due to no improvement in respect for EU values

Civil society groups matter for Cambodia’s sustainable development: UN expert

Brazilian health: right or privilege?

Cambodia’s schools are the new frontline in the battle against climate change

Everybody against Germany over the expensive euro

EU-US trade war? EU calls for logic while Trump’s administration is a loose cannon in a dangerous lose-lose situation for global prosperity

AI can help with the COVID-19 crisis – but the right human input is key

“The Arctic climate matters: to what degree?”, a Sting Exclusive co-authored by UN Environment’s Jan Dusik and Slava Fetisov

Quantum leap: why the next wave of computers will change the world

Taxation: Commission refers Poland to Court for failing to remove certain tax exemptions on the use of energy products by highly polluting businesses

FROM THE FIELD: Hardy seeds bear fruit to protect Colombia’s environment

Can the EU afford a trade war with China?

Guterres underscores UN role in achieving a free, secure Internet

This is how Copenhagen plans to go carbon-neutral by 2025

More Stings?


Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s