Ventilators manufactured by Draegerwerk AG stand beside empty hospital beds in the Jaffestrasse Corona Treatment Center in a converted hall at the Berlin Messe exhibition space in Berlin, Germany, on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. Picture: KRISZTIAN BOCSI
Ventilators manufactured by Draegerwerk AG stand beside empty hospital beds in the Jaffestrasse Corona Treatment Center in a converted hall at the Berlin Messe exhibition space in Berlin, Germany, on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. Picture: KRISZTIAN BOCSI

The government on Wednesday downplayed the delayed production of ventilators, saying that even if the need for them eases locally as Covid-19 infections drop, there will still be a huge demand for them across the continent.

Ventilators are crucial in the fight against Covid-19. They keep Covid-19 patients in the most critical condition alive, assisting with breathing when the lungs fail.

A total of 20,000 the life-saving ventilators are set to be produced locally as part of government efforts to respond to Covid-19.

Of these, at least 10,000 were due to have been delivered by the manufacturers at the end of July. But the deadline has since been shifted to the end of September amid clear indications of production capacity constraints.

Department of trade & industry officials told parliament on Wednesday that 2,000 ventilators have been produced since the project got off the ground in May.

The ventilators will complement the existing stock in the public and private health-care industry as well as additional purchases of ventilators from global manufacturers and donations received from other countries. SA reportedly has 4,000 ventilators in the private sector and about 2,000 in public hospitals.

But as Covid-19 infections ease in SA, some MPs have suggested that there may not be much need for the equipment.

The average unit cost is about R12,500, which, according to the department of trade & industry, is significantly lower than anything that can be found commercially. Most of the funding for the production of the 20,000 ventilators has been secured from the Solidarity Fund, with funds already provided to purchase the first 10,000 units while negotiations are under way to fund the additional units.

Stephen Hanival, chief economist at the department, told MPs on Wednesday that despite the delays, SA is unlikely to experience a shortage of ventilators should the country experience a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are talking about developing sophisticated medical equipment. To develop that in a space of even one year is quite unusual, so yes, there is a possibility that the need of these ventilators will not be as great today as we thought when [the] project was being developed, but that does not mean there won’t still be demand for the machines elsewhere in the world,” Hanival said.

He said that in line with epidemiologists’ views on how the pandemic is likely to take hold in the rest of Africa, “it is almost certain that we will see a growth in infections across the continent and so the opportunity to export these machines will certainly be there”.

“Yes we could argue that it would have been better to get production going in a shorter period of time, but the reality is even getting this project off the ground in the three months that we have had is perhaps the fastest development process that we have seen in SA in decades.”

DA MP and trade & industry spokesperson Dean Macpherson said the delays and inaction were concerning.

“With decreasing Covid cases and deaths, where will these ventilators go and which health departments have requested them? The Western Cape health department has said that they do not require these machines as they have passed the peak and it will be of no use to them, which begs the question: who exactly are they for?”

Macpherson said President Cyril Ramaphosa sold the initial lockdown and extended lockdown to SA on the basis that his government needed to “raise the line” on health care, which should have included the procurement and production of ventilators.

“Three million people sacrificed their jobs to allow the president and [trade & industry] minister [Ebrahim Patel] to do so. We now know this line was not raised and minister Patel has failed spectacularly in his ‘brainchild’ project while citizens have paid with their livelihoods,” the DA MP said.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za

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