BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union will struggle to get hold of large numbers of ventilators quickly to treat patients suffering from COVID-19 due to the complexity of the machines and high demand for them, the executive European Commission said on Friday.

With medical equipment in short supply as Europe battles the pandemic, the Commission launched a joint procurement procedure on March 17 to buy ventilators on behalf of the bloc’s 26 member states, in a bid to cut prices and reduce competition among states seeking the machines.

The Brussels-based Commission said suppliers had been selected and it was sending contracts out to them before member states can begin negotiating specific deliveries.

“Taking into account the difficult situation of the markets and the complexity of products like ventilators, their production and delivery is expected to take time,” a Commission spokesman told a regular news briefing.

The coronavirus pandemic has strained EU unity as member states compete to secure supplies such as masks, testing kits and ventilators.

A month before the scramble to procure equipment began, EU national governments had told Brussels their healthcare systems were ready and there was no need to order more stocks, documents reviewed by Reuters have shown.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Hugh Lawson)