The aspirational 100,000-ventilator challenge

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Published 13 April 2020

One month ago, I wrote in the Telegraph that the NHS in England needed 7.5 times as many critical care beds with ventilators. It helped spark the UK Government to call for business to make ventilators for the NHS. At the time, the NHS had around 4,000 ventilators in use for critical care beds – about 74 per million people. The number increased to 12,000 by the end of March with help from the private sector. UK industry has also met the challenge. VentilatorChallengeUKDyson and Babcock look set to supply at least 30,000 ventilators shortly – potentially churning out 4,500 per week. Thanks to this and the effect of the lockdown, it is likely that the NHS will have enough ventilators and could be on course to produce even more. As Bill Gates pointed out in the Telegraph this weekend, Covid-19 is a disease without borders. It needs a connected and global response. So, as the UK should look outward to how it can play its role globally – particularly on the supply of ventilators. Contrast the situation in the UK to Tanzania where ALIMA estimates there are 60 ventilators (in total) for a similar population. Or Burkina Faso that has 11 (i.e. fewer than most hospitals in England) for its population of 20 million. Outside of South Africa, there are about 12 ventilators per million people – Niger has only 0.2 per million.

We estimate that it would take an additional 37,000 ventilators to get the countries covered by the survey up to the same number per million people as the NHS (pre-Covid-19). Or 86,000 for all countries in Africa (assuming the sample - without South Africa - is representative). These numbers are only for African countries and ignore the many challenges that would be involved in the safe and effective deployment of so many ventilators into undeveloped health systems. It also ignores the need for broader support, such as awareness-raising and access to soap and water that are being funded by organisations like Start Network's Covid-19 fund. But even higher-income countries, like the United States, face temporary shortages of ventilators.   Driven in part by the lower opportunity (and presumably marginal) cost of production during the lockdown, the UK must use its temporary comparative advantage in the production and supply of ventilators. It should not just use this to bolster the availability in the NHS, but also to help others. 

Targeting 100,000 would be aspirational, could take less than 23 weeks and would help save countless lives now and more so in the future.