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Coronavirus

Ventilator output ramps up as world braces for patient surge

Japan's Asahi Kasei plans 25-fold boost while automakers weigh support

Asahi Kasei unit Zoll Medical will increase production of these portable ventilators. (Photo courtesy of Asahi Kasei)

TOKYO/WASHINGTON -- The looming ventilator shortages facing the world have spurred calls for increasing production, prompting manufactures, including Japan’s Asahi Kasei, to boost output of the equipment vital to treating coronavirus patients

A U.S. unit of Japanese chemical company Asahi Kasei will boost ventilator production 25 times to 10,000 a month by switching over line now used to make defibrillators. Massachusetts-based Zoll Medical said it has negotiated with suppliers to procure enough parts needed for the production boost.

Zoll's portable ventilators feature virus-blocking filters, which reduce the risk of infecting medical personnel. In addition to the U.S., the company is considering sending units to European countries hit hard by the pandemic.

With the number of cronavirus cases topping 400,000 worldwide, governments are desperately shopping for ventilators, which are essential in keeping critically ill patients alive. The U.S. and European nations are urging the private sector, including companies outside the medical device industry, to increase production. 

Capacity issues appear linked to the high mortality rate in Italy, which has reported more than twice as many deaths as China with fewer cases. Italy has 12.5 intensive care unit beds per 100,000 people, compared with 29.2 in Germany, according to a 2012 study by a research team at the University of London.

A mid-February study by the Japanese Society of Intensive Care Medicine found that Japan has 22,254 ventilators at the 1,558 medical facilities that responded to the poll, of which about 60% were available for use if COVID-19 cases spike.

But normal ventilators are not enough to help the sickest patients, who need extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, systems that take over for the lungs and add oxygen to the blood outside the body.

Patients with severe pneumonia "need to use ECMO machines for weeks at a time, but there aren't many units," a university physician said. The study found that Japan has 1,412 ECMO systems, of which 1,255 were available for use.

"We can maintain a stable domestic supply at this time, but we're considering increasing production" in response to an influx of inquiries from medical institutions, said a representative from Osaka-based Nipro, which manufactures oxygenation equipment.

Several automakers are also responding to the calls for production boosts. General Motors, McLaren of the U.K., Japan's Nissan Motor and Ferrari in Italy are considering manufacturing ventilator parts. Ford has begun supplying engine-cooling parts that can be converted for use in ventilators.

Standards for ventilator production are typically strict, given the life-and-death importance of the devices. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has opened the door to emergency authorization for businesses not normally involved in medical device manufacturing.

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