By Geoff Baker / The Seattle Times
Bothell-based Ventec Life Systems saw the biggest single order for its portable VOCSN ventilator Wednesday when the federal government requested 30,000 of the life-sustaining machines for $489.4 million.
The Department of Health and Human Services placed the order through Ventec’s partner, General Motors, which is to produce 6,132 machines by June 1 and the rest by August. Ramping up production lines at a GM plant in Kokomo, Indiana, ordinarily used to build precision car parts, is expected to take several weeks.
Ventec chief strategy officer Chris Brooks said Wednesday that while his company continues to boost its own production in Bothell — projected to increase nearly tenfold to 2,000 ventilators a month by summer — the government contract focuses only on units being built in Indiana.
“Our focus right now is doing everything to get those GM units online,” Brooks said, adding that a team led by Ventec design and production engineers has been traveling back and forth to the Indiana plant for two weeks.
It was unclear whether Ventec or GM would be the primary contractor on the deal as both were directly involved in negotiations. Suppliers have said GM was paying them directly.
“We’re grateful to the GM team for working with the federal government to expand our nation’s supply of ventilators as the pandemic evolves,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on March 27, effectively ordering GM to build ventilators. The wartime-era law allows the federal government to force companies to build needed supplies.
GM and Ventec earlier that day had already announced they would produce the ventilators after the Trump administration backed off an announcement of a deal to buy the devices. In tweets that day, Trump slammed GM, imploring the company to “START MAKING VENTILATORS NOW!!!!!!”
“GM and Ventec Life Systems are working with speed and urgency to arm front-line medical professionals with the critical care ventilators they need to treat seriously ill patients,” GM said in a statement Wednesday. “GM is proud to deploy its purchasing and manufacturing capability alongside the respiratory care expertise of Ventec. We will continue to explore ways to help in this time of crisis.”
Ford is also planning to produce ventilators, partnering with Florida-based Airon.
Hospital demand for ventilators is expected to soon exceed the 10,000 or so in the federal stockpile. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has said 16,524 ventilators will be needed by this weekend to treat COVID-19 patients when the nation’s use of medical resources is expected to peak.
The ventilators produced by GM will be what Brooks called “a slightly modified configuration” of the VOCSN, saving production time and money. The modified V-Pro version will deliver high-pressure oxygen to patients and has special software for a specific response physicians use to treat COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
“VOCSN is a critical care ventilator, so it allows you to deliver a very powerful and very precise flow of air to the patient,” Brooks said. “If you over-inflate the lungs … and if you under-inflate the lungs, you can cause patient harm or death. So, being able to deliver that very precise air to the patient is really critical.
“And then, when you think about how the patient is recovering … you want to eventually wean them off of the ventilator. That is also a bit of an art and a science.”
The average cost of a GM-produced ventilator, $17,000, is roughly what the VOCSN normally sells for, though modified versions lack its nebulizer and suction unit features. Built-in costs include new tooling and accessories including bacterial filters and roll stands, as well as setup.
“Of course, we’ve never built devices with General Motors,” Brooks said. “There’s a whole new supply chain and retooling that goes into the production that is literally going from beginning to end in a matter of weeks.”
Brooks confirmed GM is still providing its factory and 1,000 workers “at cost” to the venture.
The lack of certain features on the GM-produced ventilators does mean respiratory therapists monitoring them potentially won’t be able to look after as many patients at a time as they would on unmodified VOCSN units — which streamline five different machine functions into one.