A medical staffer checks a ventilator in an intensive care unit at a newly inaugurated hospital in Tamil Nadu state during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown. Photo: AFP/Arun Sankar

In the race to minimize loss of life in the Covid-19 pandemic, carmakers Mahindra Group, Maruti, and Hyundai India have joined other global automobile giants in helping to increase the production of ventilators.

India has the world’s fourth-largest auto industry, after China, the US and Japan, and its top three automakers are joining the ventilator market.

India’s leading carmakers will be churning out ventilators. Image courtesy Mahindra & Mahindra Media Resources

Ventilators are expensive and sophisticated breathing aids needed in the treatment of Covid-19, a disease that affects the lungs. Ventilators for critically ill patients include intubation, inserting tubes into the lungs to enable the patient to inhale oxygen.

A good-quality ventilator can cost between US$5,000 and $50,000, according to Minneapolis-based biotech major Medtronic’s cost guide. The world faces a critical shortage of ventilators, with about 1.2 million coronavirus infections across 204 countries.

How many ventilators are needed worldwide is unclear, with confusion over the true nature of this disease running rampant, as a parallel pandemic. In the US, estimates of how many ventilators are needed range from 75,000 to a cataclysmic-sounding 960,000.

Empowered by its auto industry, India plans to increase output to 50,000 ventilators per month by the end of May, from 5,580 units in March.

The Indian government banned the export of ventilators the day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a 21-day lockdown on March 25 to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) that causes Covid-19.

Some of the world’s leading ventilator makers are partnering with automakers. With their factories shut worldwide because of lockdowns, car companies such as Ford, Jaguar and Honda are morphing into a new role as medical saviors.

Likewise, India’s auto majors are partnering with governments and local biotech ventilator manufacturers. They include New Delhi-based AgVa Healthcare, Ahmedabad-based LifeLine Biz, Chennai-headquartered Trivitron Healthcare and Air Liquid Medical Systems, and Mumbai-headquartered Narang Healthcare and AVI Healthcare.

Anand Mahindra, chairman of the $20.7 billion Mahindra and Mahindra Group, on March 26 announced a path-breaking improvised ventilator device costing just $100:

“We are cheering on these Indian engineers as they race to build a low-cost ventilator – a potential game-changer for #Covid19,” said Alice Wells of the US Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, rooting for another project to produce a $650 ventilator in Pune, “With support from MIT engineers and production advice from a US-based company, we hope this invention succeeds  and can eventually be produced at scale.”

Business Today reported ventilator maker AgVa in a tie-up with India’s largest carmaker Maruti to boost production from 400 units per month to 4,000 units in April, and 10,000 units by May.

Ventilator makers need the financial muscle and assembly-line capacity of auto companies to increase production rapidly, Rajiv Nath of the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry (AiMeD) told the media. AiMeD is the umbrella association of Indian medical-device manufacturers.

In the US, General Motors has begun a stuttering partnership with Ventec Life Systems to boost production of the latter’s respiratory-care products. “Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go-ahead to make ventilators,” US President Donald Trump tweeted on March 22. Days later, he imposed the Defense Production Act after scolding GM for demanding more money and for delays.

Tesla, which makes electric cars, will be partnering with Medtronic to make state-of-the-art ventilators, Tesla co-founder Elon Musk has said.

Automakers such as Tesla are using existing car parts in improvised ventilators to speed up the manufacturing process.

Musk put out a YouTube video on how his engineering team is using parts out of the Tesla Model 3: the infotainment system and vehicle controllers to regulate airflow in the ventilator and the touchscreen panel.

Musk offered free Tesla ventilators provided they go directly to patients instead being stockpiled:

Ukraine and a province in Argentina were among those only too eager to accept Musk’s offer:

In one of the world’s worst-affected countries, Italy, Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) has joined forces with Siare Engineering International Group near Bologna to scale up production of ventilators and medical equipment needed for Covid-19 treatment.

Raja Murthy has been a contributor to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990 and earlier for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com, The Hindu and others.