GE Healthcare is ramping up production of its medical ventilators as the coronavirus - and the number of patients infected by it - continues to surge. (Photo courtesy of GE)

GE to boost ventilator production amid surge in coronavirus patients

March 24, 2020
by John R. Fischer, Senior Reporter
GE Healthcare is ramping up ventilator production to a round-the-clock schedule to help meet increasing demands from hospitals and governments worldwide as they work to treat patients infected by the coronavirus.

The multinational healthcare giant plans to hire more people to support the increased production of these devices, which health systems are in dire need of due to greater demands straining the current available supply, in the midst of a pandemic that has already claimed the lives of more than 8,900 people, according to Reuters.

“As the global pandemic evolves, there is unprecedented demand for medical equipment, including ventilators,” GE Healthcare’s chief executive officer Kieran Murphy said in a statement. “We continue to explore all options to support this increased need.”

On Tuesday morning, Ford announced that it's working with GE Healthcare to increase production of ventilators, sophisticated air pumps needed by some critically ill coronavirus patients. It is not clear exactly how Ford will help GE to make more ventilators.

Demand for ventilators globally has skyrocketed to 880,000, according to data and analytics firm GlobalData, with the U.S. in need of 75,000 more, and France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. short of 74,000. In addition, such systems cost thousands per unit, require specialized training to operate, and are subject to regulations around their intended use.

The elderly and those with underlying health conditions are among the patients at greatest risk of contracting the disease, with the majority of hospitalizations made up of people between 65 and 84, according to a recent government analysis. U.S. hospitals are expecting a greater surge of patients as the virus continues to spread, and with no vaccine available, many are relying on ventilators to treat patients with the disease, which can cause breathing problems and pneumonia in severe cases.

To help increase supplies of these and other devices, such as anesthesia gas machines, the FDA has issued a temporary policy that eases stipulations on the use of these devices.

“Under the policy, manufacturers may make certain modifications to FDA-cleared indications, claims, or functionality of these devices, without prior submission of a premarket notification, where the modification will not create an undue risk in light of the public health emergency,” said the FDA in a letter issued to healthcare providers and manufacturers. “In such circumstances, FDA recommends that the manufacturer provide clear instructions delineating FDA-cleared indications and claims from those that are not FDA-cleared, in addition to a general statement about changes that have not been cleared by FDA.”

The agency recommends that hospitals use FDA-cleared conventional and standard full-featured ventilators when available, and to consider using alternative devices if their supply of ventilators is low.

GE Healthcare did not disclose the number of ventilators it plans to produce nor the number of people it plans to hire to keep up with production but is shifting current employees and working with suppliers to further reduce shortages. It also is increasing manufacturing of equipment such as CT, ultrasound and mobile X-ray systems.

Other companies, such as Medtronic and Philips, have also announced plans to boost production. “We are ramping up our production in China since the restart in February 2020, where we are now above 80% capacity utilization,” said Philips CEO Frans van Houten in a statement. “To meet the increased demand for our professional healthcare products and solutions, across the globe we are in the process of increasing their production and rollout.”

Non-medical-based technology companies are also lending a hand, with Tesla CEO Elon Musk offering to make ventilators to prevent a shortage in the U.S. and Apple supplier Foxconn retrofitting production lines to produce masks and other necessary supplies. Ford, Honda and Rolls Royce have agreed to make healthcare equipment for the British government. Ford, along with General Motors, is currently in talks with the U.S. government on how they can support medical device production there.