Britain faces a "massive shortage" of ventilators that will be needed to treat critically ill patients suffering from coronavirus, after it failed to invest enough in intensive care equipment, a leading ventilator manufacturer said on Wednesday.
"England is very poorly equipped," said Andreas Wieland, chief executive of Hamilton Medical in Switzerland, which says it is the world's largest ventilator maker.
"They're going to have a massive shortage, once the virus really arrives there," he told Reuters in an interview.
Ventilators, running in the thousands of dollars per unit, are used to help people with respiratory difficulties to breathe. They are high-tech versions of the "iron lungs" that kept people alive into the 1950s during fierce polio epidemics.
Worldwide, the devices have become shorthand for the rapid advance of the disease — and the desperation of officials who fear their stocks are inadequate. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the 3,000 devices in his state where 20 people have died are a fraction of what he'd like to have.
"The entire world is trying to buy ventilators," Cuomo said, according to a transcript published on Wednesday, adding he is hoping to tap a U.S. federal government stockpile.
Germany's Draegerwerk (DRWG_p.DE) last week got a government order for 10,000, equal to a typical year's production.
Wieland's company in the Swiss Alps has boosted normal production of some 15,000 ventilators annually by 30-40% and now can produce about 80 ventilators daily.
He has shifted his 1,400 employees to seven-day work weeks as well as borrowed workers from other companies in the Rhine River valley where his two-year-old ventilator plant is located.
Last week, Hamilton Medical shipped 400 ventilators to Italy, whose intensive care units have been overwhelmed by more than 35,000 cases of the rapidly spreading virus and almost 3,000 deaths.
About 50% of those with coronavirus in Italy accepted into intensive care units are dying, compared with typical mortality rates of 12% to 16% in such units.
Wieland said a similar outbreak in Britain, now with more than 2,600 cases and about 100 deaths, would swamp the system there, too.
"They are not well equipped with ventilators and intensive care stations," he said. "They invested very little, and I think now they will pay the price."
UK health minister Matt Hancock has acknowledged the existing stock of 5,000 ventilators is inadequate.
"NO NUMBER TOO HIGH"
"We think we need many times more than that and we are saying if you produce a ventilator then we will buy it," he said earlier this week. "No number is too high."
Wieland said he was in "close contact" with UK medical leaders and aimed to prioritise shipments there soon, though for now Italy was taking precedence.
But he also has orders from the United States, Turkey, France and China, where in January he stocked up on components in anticipation of rising demand as the virus spread from its origins in Wuhan.
The UK's Intensive Care Society, an organisation of medical professionals, did not immediately return emails and phone calls from Reuters seeking comment on the nation's readiness for a possible explosion of coronavirus cases.
"We are likely to need more," a National Health Service spokesman told Reuters. "Engineers have already been tasked with developing plans to produce more ventilators in the UK, at speed."
Hamilton CEO Wieland is skeptical, however, of the British government's recent call for manufacturers from other industries including Ford (F.N), Honda (7267.T) and Rolls Royce (RR.L) to help make equipment including ventilators.
"I wish them the best of luck," Wieland said. "I do not believe anything will come of it. These devices are very complex. It takes us four to five years" to develop a new product.