A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Premature Claim about Ventilator Production


In a March 21 press briefing, President Donald Trump prematurely declared that automakers, including Ford and General Motors, were manufacturing much needed ventilators “right now.”

It wasn’t until nearly a week after the president’s claim that General Motors and Ventec Life Systems announced that the car company would begin retooling its manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Indiana, to make “critical care ventilators” that could be ready to “ship as soon as next month.”

Prior to that, GM had been working to produce or procure parts for Ventec to increase Ventec’s output of ventilators, and GM was only “exploring the feasibility to build ventilators” at one of its own facilities, a company spokesman told us.

The CEO of Ford, meanwhile, has said recently that it could be May or June before Ford, which is partnering with another company that makes the lifesaving machines, begins to produce them in mass.

The collaborations between the car makers and the medical device manufacturers came about as governors and health officials around the country have said that hospitals do not have enough ventilators for patients with COVID-19, which affects the respiratory system and can make it difficult for patients to breathe on their own.

Many politicians have called on Trump to use the full force of the Defense Production Act of 1950, which gives the president the authority to compel private businesses in the U.S. to ramp up the production of necessary supplies during a national emergency. In addition to ventilators, hospitals treating an increasing number of patients with COVID-19 are also reportedly lacking essential supplies including respirators and protective gear, such as masks, gloves and gowns.

But Trump has said that he has not needed to rely on the Defense Production Act because several companies have volunteered to help. And he has sometimes given the impression that car companies, in particular, have already started producing ventilators.

In a March 21 press briefing with members of the White House coronavirus task force, for example, Trump said that GM and Ford were making ventilators “right now.”

Trump, March 21: You know, a ventilator is a machine. It’s a very complex machine. And to think that we have to order hundreds of thousands — nobody has ever heard of a thing like this. … With that being said, General Motors, Ford, so many companies — I had three calls yesterday directly. Without having to institute — like, “You will do this” — these companies are making them right now. But to think of these numbers, it’s pretty — it’s pretty mindboggling.

The following day, on Twitter, the president wrote: “Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST! @fema Go for it auto execs, lets see how good you are?”

Trump’s tweet may have been a reference to the Food and Drug Administration recently deciding to temporarily relax some of the rules that companies have to follow when producing ventilators and other medical supplies. The FDA said the guidance was intended to “provide a policy to help expand the availability of ventilators as well as other respiratory devices and their accessories during this pandemic.”

But Ford and GM have not started making ventilators yet, and just how “fast” they may be able to do so in the future remains to be seen.

General Motors

On March 20, GM announced that it would be helping Ventec Life Systems increase production of Ventec’s ventilators. “Ventec will leverage GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more of their critically important ventilators,” the companies said in a joint statement. 

When asked if GM was already producing ventilators, a spokesman, Dan Flores, provided us with another joint statement that said: “Ventec Life Systems and General Motors have been working around the clock to implement plans to build more critical care ventilators. With GM’s support, Ventec is now planning exponentially higher ventilator production as fast as possible.”

The statement also said: “As part of those efforts, GM is exploring the feasibility to build ventilators for Ventec at a GM facility in Kokomo, Indiana.”

On March 23, Reuters reported: “As part of the effort to boost ventilator output from Ventec, GM has arranged for the supply of 95% of the parts needed to build the ventilator and is seeking to source the remaining 37 necessary parts, according to an email to suppliers from Shilpan Amin, GM’s vice president of global purchasing.”

The Reuters story added: “First parts need to be delivered by suppliers to GM by April 6, the sources said. Supplier production could begin ‘within the next 2-3 weeks,’ Amin said in his email. It was not clear when GM might begin production.”

But on March 27, GM and Ventec announced that GM would, in fact, soon be manufacturing ventilators.

Ventec Life Systems announced today General Motors will build VOCSN critical care ventilators at GM’s Kokomo, Indiana manufacturing facility with FDA-cleared ventilators scheduled to ship as soon as next month,” GM said in a statement. “This effort is in addition to Ventec taking aggressive steps to ramp up production at their manufacturing facility in Bothell, Washington.”

The statement continued: “Efforts to set up tooling and manufacturing capacity at the GM Kokomo facility are already underway to produce Ventec’s critical care ventilator, VOCSN. Depending on the needs of the federal government, Ventec and GM are poised to deliver the first ventilators next month and ramp up to a manufacturing capacity of more than 10,000 critical care ventilators per month with the infrastructure and capability to scale further.”

After that announcement, Trump lashed out at GM on Twitter, saying that “late Aprilisn’t soon enough and that GM must “START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW.”

Trump also then invoked the Defense Production Act to force GM to make them.

Ford

Ford, on the other hand, announced on March 24 that it would be working with GE Healthcare, which also manufactures ventilators. 

“Ford and GE Healthcare are working together to expand production of a simplified version of GE Healthcare’s existing ventilator design to support patients with respiratory failure or difficulty breathing caused by COVID-19,” Ford said in a statement. “These ventilators could be produced at a Ford manufacturing site in addition to a GE location.”

In an interview, a Ford spokesman, Mike Levine, told us that the company did not have any information to share about a timeline. He simply said Ford is working on this “as quickly as possible.”

Levine said “it’s possible we will take on some of the manufacturing ourselves,” and added that Ford is in talks with GE Healthcare to see how it would be able to do that.

But Ford’s president and CEO, Jim Hackett, already has said in interviews that it could be more than a month before the company starts producing a product.

For instance, he told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that it may take until well into May for Ford and other producers worldwide to be making “hundreds of thousands of ventilators”:

Camerota, March 24: And just — I mean, is there any way to give me a timeline? I mean, doctors say they need them now. Do you know how quickly —

Hackett: Yes, yes — sorry —

Camerota: — you can make them?

Hackett: Yes, there’s no higher sense of urgency. The biggest issue, for example talking to the U.K. last night, is there are six hours of testing at the end of this. You actually have to run the ventilator through a complete cycle to make sure there’s no part of it that fails. It normally takes about 27 hours to make a ventilator. We think we can cut that in half. And I would say to you that the — at scale, by the — by the middle of May, we could be making hundreds of thousands of these ventilators.

Camerota: I’m sorry, hundreds of thousands, how often?

Hackett: I’m saying that by — you have to scale this up, so I’m saying by early May, we could — you could see, across the world, hundreds of thousands of ventilators being built from multiple suppliers, not just Ford Motor Company. 

And in interviews with NPR and CBS’ “This Morning,” Hackett said it could take until June for Ford and other companies to scale up production to the rate needed.

Meanwhile, GE Healthcare says it has “doubled its capacity of ventilator production and has plans to double it again by end of Q2 2020 to address unprecedented demand – independent of the collaboration with Ford.”

Tesla

As for Tesla, which Trump also has mentioned, the electric car and clean energy company’s CEO, Elon Musk, wrote on Twitter recently that he “had a long engineering discussion with Medtronic,” a medical device company, “about state-of-the-art ventilators.” He also tweeted that Tesla “will make ventilators if there is a shortage” while noting that the machines “cannot be produced instantly.”

He said Tesla’s Giga New York factory in Buffalo “will reopen for ventilator production as soon as humanly possible.”

Musk did not offer more specific information about his company’s plans, and Tesla did not respond to our request for comment.

He did tweet that he already has purchased and shipped more than 1,000 ventilators for use in Los Angeles, which California Gov. Gavin Newsom confirmed in a press conference on March 23.

So, automakers are currently working to help meet the demand for ventilators, whether that means helping other companies that already make the machines, or developing plans to produce ventilators themselves.

But none of those vehicle companies is manufacturing the devices “right now,” as the president said. 

Even General Motors has said that its factory has to be retooled before production can begin.