The central government has asked all automakers to utilise their manufacturing facilities to produce ventilators and other medical gear required to fight coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).
Anand Mahindra-led Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) is believed to be in the final stage of discussions with Bangalore-based ventilator exporter Skanray Technologies. Tata group, through Tata Motors, is also in last-minute negotiations with a Mysuru-based manufacturer to ramp up ventilator manufacturing.
In a communication to major automobile manufacturers, the Ministry of Heavy Industries asked them to explore using their manufacturing facilities and manpower to produce ventilators. Sources said that the communication was issued after a joint meeting of the top four companies — Maruti Suzuki, M&M, Tata Motors and Hyundai.
In the United States, Ford Motors has started working with 3M and General Electric to manufacture respirators and ventilators. The past 48 hours have seen the government prioritise production of ventilators. With imports from Europe drying up, India urgently needs to increase availability. According to a study by Brookings Institution, India will need 110,000-220,000 ventilators by May 15.
“The government has literally created a war room and work is happening on real-time basis. In fact, a couple of joint secretaries have joined WhatsApp groups with manufacturers to learn about the issues they are facing,” said an industry insider. The government and industry are frequently holding video-conferences across the country.
Executive of car companies, however, say it will be difficult for effective tie-ups between car companies and medical equipment manufacturers to fructify at such short notice.
“The government anticipates a need for a much larger number of ventilators. They have approached us about the possibility of making ventilators in-house. A number of our teams are looking at the possibility. We will come up with an answer in a day or two. We have very limited time,” said R C Bhargava, chairman of Maruti Suzuki.
An executive at Hyundai explained that for partnerships to fructify faster, ventilator manufacturers should agree to make their design, patents available to auto companies. “Carmakers don’t have expertise in manufacturing medical items. So, we would need design and manpower expertise from companies that have been making them,” Bhargava said.
There are nine major local manufacturers of medical equipments, and they are facing major challenges in sourcing raw material in the current lockdown. The government has sought information on bottlenecks in component sourcing. Several meetings have been held and an inter-ministerial committee has been formed with representation from the departments of pharmaceuticals and civil aviation, among others.
The civil aviation ministry is coordinating with the association of freight forwarders and manufacturers to see how critical components can be picked up from ports across the world. “Cargo planes will fly and bring in these components for ventilators, along with other components for the medical devices industry,” said Rajiv Nath, forum coordinator of AIMED (Association of Indian Medical Device Industry).
Delhi-based health-tech company AgVa Healthcare is working round-the-clock to produce 20,000 ventilators in the next month as the country battles the pandemic. This is a low-cost ventilator developed by a young robotics engineer and a doctor from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) that comes at one-seventh the cost of the widely available variants in the market.
This is a huge number, given that India has an estimated 40,000 working ventilators now. If the number of COVID-19 positive cases surges, the infrastructure would be inadequate, given that around 5 per cent of patients need intensive care.