It’s no longer news that there’s an acute shortage of ventilators the world over. With Covid-19 filling up hospital beds everywhere, India is rushing to avoid an imminent shortage of the life support machine. The country would need 110,000 to 220,000 ventilators by 15 May, according to projections projections Brookings COVID-19 | Is India’s health infrastructure equipped to handle an epidemic? Read more . It has 40,000.

However, large Indian manufacturers that sell ventilators—like Chennai-based Trivitron Healthcare—are struggling to import essential parts to build more. “Most medical devices are shipped through international passenger flights. With flight restrictions in place, such shipments are solely dependent on cargo flights. As a result, cargo clearances have slowed down and a huge backlog is witnessed at customs,” said Sanjay Bhutani, the director of  Medical Technology Association of India (MTaI), which represents medical technology MNCs. 

Even if imports do make it, though, there’s a problem with movement within India as the country is under lockdown. MTaI issued a statement on 26 March saying there’s “confusion impacting the movement of vital medical devices” within the country. “If the logjam continues, hospitals could face acute scarcity of medical devices very soon,” read the statement. This, despite the Department of Pharmaceuticals asking for medical device operations to be exempted from the lockdown. In this time, however, courier agencies carrying medical devices have also suffered.

“How can we indigenously make these critical components, or source? When we want to source something, all the flight areas are stopped. The government needs to allow cargo flights to come”

Senior executive with Trivitron Healthcare

The need of the hour for India is effective alternatives produced on a tight deadline. That’s the gap the likes of Noida-based startup AgVa Healthcare, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK), Pune-based robotics startup Nocca Robotics, and Ahmedabad-based medical device company Citizen Industries are trying to fill. 

IITK, Nocca and Citizen are working together to build a prototype ventilator by 5 April, if not earlier. They started work only on 22 March. To put that timeline in perspective, most products that come out of IITK’s incubator take two to five years. These are desperate times, though, and the trio has support from the government and private players. They’re working with a group of doctors specialising in respiratory diseases to vet their product.

The group’s aim is to create a basic ventilator built with Indian parts, removing the need to depend on imports. Something that’s easy to produce, scale, and distribute in mere weeks.

AgVa, meanwhile, built its own low-cost ventilator—from design to manufacturing—back in 2018.