By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) – Germany and Italy spearheaded a national scramble for ventilators as manufacturers warned on Friday that hospitals everywhere face a lack of vital equipment needed to treat coronavirus patients.
Germany’s Draegerwerk said its government placed an order for 10,000 ventilators for intensive respiratory care, the medical gear maker’s largest order ever and equivalent to a year’s normal production.
Hard-hit Italy, with more than 10,000 infections and 1,000 deaths from the virus so far, tendered for 5,000 ventilators and other desperately needed medical equipment.
Italy may have less than a quarter of the breathing machines necessary to help patients as infections fill their lungs with fluid, Andreas Wieland, chief executive of the world’s largest ventilator maker Hamilton Medical, told Reuters.
“There’s a huge discrepancy between available ventilators and the need,” Wieland said in an interview, adding that the U.S. Army is among customers looking to order more. “Turkey has ordered many ventilators, China has ordered many devices, the United States – actually, everyone is ordering.”
“In recent years, countries have been building up their supply of ventilators, to prepare for a potential problem situation,” Wieland added. “But nobody expected such a situation to take on such dramatic proportions.”
Privately owned Hamilton Medical, a Swiss company which usually makes 15,000 ventilators a year, has ramped up its production by 30-40%, Wieland said.
Draegerwerk also plans to boost production at its factory in the north German city of Luebeck as the worldwide death toll from coronavirus topped 4,900.
Draegerwerk’s massive German order departs from typical buying by hospitals.
“It’s unusual for a government to order medical gear directly,” a spokesman told Reuters. “Normally customers in Germany are hospitals and clinics.”
The national scramble for equipment raised concerns about possible export restrictions, setting back cooperative efforts to tackle the disease.
Without mentioning specific governments, Swedish Enterprise Minister Ibrahim Baylan said at a news conference that some nations were circumventing the European Commission to block exports. “We must find our way back to cooperation,” Baylan said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters that limits placed on exports by countries including France and Germany undermined the EU single market at a time it had to function.
“I have been in very close contact with Germany, with France and with other member states and I am happy to report that they are willing to adapt their national measures as we requested,” Von der Leyen said on Friday.
The World Health Organization, whose officials on Friday warned the coronavirus outbreak in many countries “will get worse before it gets better,” has also warned of global equipment shortages – and fears of exploitative pricing – as resources grow scarce and nations look to slow the virus’s spread on their home turf.
In Italy, the health ministry acknowledged efforts to increase critical care beds with ventilators may fall short of what is needed.
“All regions are increasing the beds in intensive care by 50% and the places in sub intensive care by 100%,” a health ministry source said. “Obviously in regions like Lombardy, if the infection does not stop, this risks not being enough.”
Hamilton, a unit of U.S.-based Hamilton Company, along with Swedish rival Getinge, which makes more than 10,000 ventilators a year, said no single manufacturer could fill Italy’s order alone.
“I don’t think there’s any supplier or med-tech company that would be able to supply 5,000 units just like that,” Getinge spokeswoman Anna Appelqvist said. “It will probably be a mix.”
Getinge’s production was going “full speed,” she said, though reliance on subcontractors for components plays a role in how much it can boost production.
Hamilton’s ventilator plant, in the village of Bonaduz in the Alps, stocked up in January on the components it needs after Wieland heard from Chinese associates of a mysterious new respiratory virus.
“They told me, ‘There’s something quite bad afoot. We don’t know exactly what’s going on, but there’s a virus, and it’s spreading’,” Wieland said. “We bought supplies necessary for about a half a year.”
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(Reporting by John Miller and Oliver Hirt in Zurich, Edward Taylor and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Johan Ahlander in Stockholm and Angelo Amante in Rome; editing by Thomas Seythal and Elaine Hardcastle)