BOGOTA, Colombia – Med-tech companies across Latin America that have traditionally focused on domestic and regional markets are in a race against time to supply ventilators to deal with worsening COVID-19 outbreaks.

Latin America’s med-tech industry has focused for years on the production of medical devices for the global market, but a significant shift is underway with companies quickly ramping up production to deal with localized outbreaks.

“We’ve got desperate requests for ventilators from many countries in the Latin American region, because they lack self-production, and those are the countries where ventilators made in China, the U.S. or Europe will arrive last,” Silvina Grasso, general manager at Leistung Ingenieria S.R.L. in Argentina told BioWorld. For the time being, those requests may not be addressed.

Leistung, a 35-year-old med-tech manufacturing company, is one of just two companies in Argentina that produce ventilators. The second one is Tecme SA. Both are based in the province of Córdoba. Both companies were forced by the government of Argentina to halt all exports, report their production volumes on a weekly basis and sell all their products to the government only.

“Two months ago, we decided to stop exports, and then the government requested it. They also requested us to increase production, and thereafter, they informed us that we should report our stocks on a weekly basis [to them] as well as our planned production for the weeks ahead,” said Grasso.

Leistung is not looking at the government’s order as a roadblock to business, but rather as a strategy to centralize supplies of ventilators. This is just another step in the country’s strategy to contain the outbreak and prepare for the peak of COVID-19. Argentina already has more than 2,600 confirmed cases and more than 120 deaths.

According to Grasso, the Argentine government wants to increase the supply of ventilators by between 3,000 and 4,000 units. The country has between 7,000 and 8,000 units available at ICUs, for a population of almost 45 million people.

“We’ve got a lot of purchase orders from the provinces, municipalities and private hospitals, but we can only sell our products to the national government, which in turn, has the whole strategy to supply the entire country,” said Grasso, who is unsure about the government’s plan to supply private hospitals in the southern part of the country where infrastructure is weaker.

Grasso, who is part of the second generation of the family that founded the company, wants to increase production of ventilators as much as possible at least until July.

“We manufacture between 300 and 400 ventilators per year, on average. What we are trying to do is to multiply production by four with our own forces and [help from] third parties, larger companies, to support our processes,” she said. A ventilator manufactured by Leistung is sold for around $10,000.

But the challenge for Grasso is not only reaching agreements with third parties and recruiting manpower to support the production increase, but also finding components globally.

“The complex issue is to find the critical components [for the ventilators],” she said. “All factories around the world are fighting for the components ... the supply is becoming really complex. There are certain brands of valves and sensors that we all use, so [maintaining] the supply of those parts is really difficult nowadays.”

Many of the parts used by ventilator manufacturers around the world are produced in the U.S., China and Japan.

“That's a bottleneck for us,” Grasso said. Even though some parts can be replaced by domestically made components, regulations and certifications would make it harder for companies like Leistung to shift away from global suppliers.

Challenges also in Brazil

Leistung is facing similar problems in their second plant in Jaraguá do Sul, a city located in the north of the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. The Argentine company established the factory there about 20 years ago to supply ventilators to the Brazilian market, as well as exporting between 30% and 40% of its production to markets in Asia and the Middle East. However, as it has happened in many places around the world, ventilator exports came to a halt because the borders are closed for at least 180 days.

“Our company acted very fast in Brazil where we have tripled our own production and also reached an agreement with WEG SA to license our products, so they can use their technology to increase the production volumes, which are being coordinated by the ministry of health,” said Grasso. WEG Electric Equipment SA is a Brazilian electrical engineering company that is one of many non-med-tech industries that have stepped in to boost production of ventilators.

“The plan is to immediately purchase all required components in order to produce 500 ventilators. Once the production line is installed by WEG, Leistung will have an estimated capacity to produce 50 ventilators per day and deliver in the second half of May,” the company said in a press release.

Brazil is one of the few countries in the region that has not put lockdowns in place. The country's Minister of Health Luiz Henrique Mandetta was fired by President Jair Bolsonaro on April 16 due to unreconcilable differences in their approaches to the pandemic. Bolsonaro has opposed lockdowns and even dismissed the threat of the virus. Brazil, the most populous country in the region with more than 210 million people, has recorded 30,000 infections and about 2,000 deaths.