SpaceX and Tesla Might Make Ventilators. But Is It Really That Easy?
Updated: Mar 25
Retooling a car or rocket factory for complex medical devices is a gargantuan task.
Elon Musk has a habit of coming up with larger-than-life concepts from Hyperloop transit to a 42,000-strong satellite communications network.
His latest? Converting Tesla and SpaceX factories into hubs for ventilator production during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to a tweet from Raja Abbas, CEO of the Ethos Clinic—a psychiatry practice in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley—Musk said that his companies would switch over to manufacturing ventilators "if there is a shortage."
By pretty much all accounts, there is already a global shortage of the life-saving devices, which are used to pump oxygen into the lungs through a tube placed in the windpipe, while removing carbon dioxide from the body.
In Switzerland, for instance, Hamilton Medical—one of the primary manufacturers of breathing machines—has been hit with so many orders that the company can hardly get them off the assembly line before they're all bought up. Italy wanted to order 4,000 units, in one case, and Hamilton Medical could only deliver about 400. Doctors have had to make heart-wrenching choices: who gets a ventilator and who dies?
When Nate Silver, a statistician and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, tweeted to Musk that there is already a shortage, asking how many ventilators he planned to produce, the Tesla CEO responded by saying that "ventilators are not difficult," but that they cannot be produced instantaneously.
Hospitals in the U.S. are fully expecting to come up short on life-saving ventilators as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise. As of Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there have been 10,442 positive cases thus far. With continued limited testing capabilityin the U.S., the number of cases is actually probably much higher.
With only about 160,000 ventilators in U.S. hospitals at the moment—and just 12,700 in the National Strategic Stockpile as backup—the health care system could be in for a rude awakening. Some of these ventilators are already in use, as mechanical respirators are used to aid breathing in coma patients and those with lung-related issues.
If this exponential pace continues, we could see between 160 million and 214 million cases in the U.S. throughout the course of the pandemic, according to worst-case scenario estimates.
General Electric subsidiary GE Healthcare, a firm that already produces ventilators, said it will commit additional manufacturing lines to the production of ventilators, and will add shifts so that the lines will be active 24 hours per day. "As the global pandemic evolves, there is unprecedented demand for medical equipment, including ventilators." GE Healthcare president and CEO Kieran Murphy said in a prepared statement. " We continue to explore all options to support this increased need."
While Musk makes it sound simple to produce ventilators, Tesla and SpaceX factories would have to be retooled to support the manufacturing process. Breathing machines are sophisticated and contain hundreds of parts that are manufactured by firms all over the world, complicating the supply chain and the ability to increase output.
Musk isn't the first to suggest that a car company ramp up ventilation production. In England, Boris Johnson's administration has delivered respirator blueprints to at least 60 military engineers and car manufacturers, from Rolls Royce, to Airbus, to Jaguar Land Rover. In the U.S., General Motors and Ford are in preliminary talks to produce the breathing machines.
Still, experts aren't so keen on the idea. Not only do the machines contain sophisticated hardware—from pressure generators, patient circuits, filters, and valves— but the software is also sensitive. If even one component is faulty, the entire machine shuts down.
"I think the idea of automotive manufacturers or indeed any manufacturer that is not well-versed in the production of medical devices somehow quickly retooling and making an alternative product is very naïve," Nick Oliver, automotive industry expert and management professor at the University of Edinburgh, told Wired. "There is no product that I can think of in the automotive industry that has to move air and oxygen around in a similar way to a ventilator."
Earl Refsland, CEO of Allied Healthcare Products, a small ventilator manufacturer in St. Louis, told The New York Times that his company produces about 1,000 units per year, and that it would take about eight months to ramp up manufacturing. "These are ventilators to keep people alive," he said. "We aren’t making wagon wheels. It takes a while."
Vyaire Medical, a private medical device company that manufactures ventilators, says that it takes up to 40 days to complete an individual ventilator. And that's even for specialized manufacturing firms. It's not likely a car company could keep up without government support. That's notwithstanding the complicated U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval process for medical devices, which is known for being a long and daunting process.
The U.S. is weighing options to help these unorthodox potential medical device manufacturers. On Wednesday, President Trump said that he would invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950—passed in response to the Korean War—which allows for the mobilization of assembly lines to shore up on specific government-mandated products.
Even with that support, who exactly is going to pay for them? Unless Elon Musk plans to give ventilators away for free, his tweet doesn't change much.