Covid crisis breathes life into local production of ventilators

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on: May 08, 2020

There was a time when a ventilator made in India was not considered a ventilator, says Ashok Patel, Managing Director, AB Industries. About 90 per cent of India’s requirement was fulfilled by imports, he adds.

“The technology is complex and precise, and there is a combination of many disciplines, including electronics, software, etc,” says Vadodara-based Patel, explaining why the hitherto low-volume product was not a popular choice for many to make locally.

But this seems to be changing slowly and ventilators are seeing some life being breathed into the segment. As a grim reality unravels of rising Covid-19 cases, and imports stop as countries hold on to stocks for their citizens, the responsibility has been laid at the doorstep of local manufacturers to meet the country’s requirement.

And with a nudge from the Government, diverse companies and research organisations have come together to ramp up production to brace for the challenge, as India walks the fine line between restarting its economy and keeping a grip on the spread of Covid-19.

Internationally too, medtech company Medtronic open-sourced the design specifications on its portable ventilator, Puritan BennettTM 560 (PB560).

A month on, the company says it has received more than 90,000 registrations to download the specifications, as well as thousands of technical questions and requests for collaboration. Details were not available if there were registrations from India.

Nevertheless, there is palpable energy around locally-made ventilators, for now. But will it carry through beyond the pandemic to ensure a steady, reliable supply for the country in future? The jury is out on that one.

Presently, many short-term partnerships are at work to meet India’s need for over 70,000 ventilators. AB Industries has an alliance with MG Motor and BHEL, Skanray has with DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) and Bharat Electronic Ltd and AgVA Healthcare have with Maruti Suzuki, to name a few.

AB Industries produces the Max brand of ventilators. And, as Patel observes, they had installed about 8,000 ventilators in India in the 25 years they have been in the segment. But in the last three months, they have seen a steady increase in production, including a larger number of high-end models needed for Covid-19 patients.

But there continue to be problems over procurement of LCD displays, sensors, and so on, he says, adding that unhealthy practices are being witnessed now, of people unrelated to the medical device business cornering these products.

MG Motor is helping with sourcing the raw material and logistics for a year, while BHEL Bhopal is helping by producing ventilators in their facility, he says.

Making locally can also ensure more benign pricing, as ventilators are pegged between ₹50,000 and ₹6-odd lakh, he points out, while the imported ones begin at that price and go up to ₹20 lakh or more.

Scanray Founder and Managing Director Vishwaprasad Alva is not sure if the collaboration today will change the way business is done in India tomorrow. The company has been making ventilators for about six years, he says, adding that it was a small part of its portfolio. It is a product with low requirement in a non-Covid scenario. He adds that companies will be encouraged to stay invested only if Government procurement habits change and hospitals source large volumes from local companies.

DRDO is helping develop the components presently not available from overseas, and Alva is amazed at “the speed and ability with which they were delivered.”

Giving the much needed reality-check, he says companies like theirs have survived because of exports. Government procurement was difficult to rely on, as much of it was import-driven. Whether the Covid-crisis can spark some “deep thinking” towards local procurement is unclear, but self-reliance in a critical segment is a slow climb, may be in 10 years, he says.

Future strategy

Despite having the European regulatory CE approval for their ventilator and exporting it, he points to the bane of entrepreneurs in India — the difficulty in getting financial support from banks. A sensible strategy for the future is for a block of countries to come together so they can rely on each other for components, and so on.

Rajiv Nath, with the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry (AiMED), is optimistic about the steady ramp-up in the segment, where production has grown from 5,000 pieces in February-March to 30,000 in May, with projections of 40,000 in June.

There are about 15 manufacturers in the country, he says, and the data was from the top seven.

Robotics scientist Professor Diwakar Vaish, co-founder of AgVa Healthcare, says they set up the company three years ago “to make ventilators in India and for India.” On a good day, there is a shortage of ICU beds or those that need ventilators, he points out. Understanding this “pain point,”the fledgeling company started producing ventilators and priced them 10 times less than that available in the market. India should have its own standards, which is like its own language, he says. And that does not mean short-cutting quality benchmarks, he adds.

The Covid-crisis will ensure that “India gets the ventilator it deserves.” And people will understand the importance of the indigenous industry, as dependency is not good.

Published on May 08, 2020
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