Detroit, Michigan – White House officials have had talks with executives about making ventilators in the coming weeks to treat patients who need breathing support during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Talks are preliminary, but the officials with Ford and General Motors have confirmed that they’re studying feasibility of emergency medical production. All U.S. plants are closed, to slow the spread of the disease, so there’s room for production. Making respirators would require bringing some workers back, figuring out designs and controls, and winning regulatory approval for products.
There are many types of medical ventilators, ranging from simple devices that use mild pressure to force air into patients’ lungs to complex systems that rapidly cycle pure oxygen. COVID-19 attacks the lungs, and it Italy and other countries suffering through widespread outbreaks, doctors have had to pull some sick, older patients off of breathing-assistance devices to support younger, healthier patients.
Great Britain has made a similar appeal to non-medical manufacturers, and several automakers there have pledged to make components for medical parts using excess factory capacity and 3D printers.
In California, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said his company has the expertise to make masks and ventilators, noting that SpaceX builds life-support systems for space, and Tesla cars have high-tech air-circulation systems. In a tweet, he said the company would be able to offer emergency production capacity, but he downplayed the need, asking if any hospitals were yet running short on equipment.
The U.S. auto industry has a history of supplying the government with emergency equipment in times of crisis. During World War II, the U.S. became known as the Arsenal of Democracy for its ability to rapidly produce munitions, tanks, planes, and ships for the war effort. All of Detroit’s automakers converted their car plants to military production, and companies built new airplane and tank plants that converted to car production after the war.