In times of war, factories in some countries have been converted from making cars to making tanks and ships. In the time of the coronavirus, Vietnam has retooled a smartphone factory to churn out life-critical ventilators.
For many nations fighting COVID-19, ventilators have highlighted a struggle of life and death and of medical shortages. For Vietnam, which reported no local COVID-19 cases in three months, the ventilators are an unlikely story of a little engine that could -- that is, could produce machines for a world in a pandemic.
A conglomerate, Vingroup, founded by Vietnam’s richest man, had never dabbled in medical devices before the pandemic, but now makes ventilators at a cost of $7,000 a piece, which is 30% less than the price of the Medtronic model on which they’re based, according to Bloomberg News. While other nations scramble to save patients and supply hospitals, Vietnam has the bandwidth to shift focus to making those supplies, in part, because it tackled the coronavirus early, resulting in 382 cases for all of 2020. Despite its smaller economy, Vietnam is now donating ventilators, masks, and other aid to richer nations.
Many 'firsts' for Vietnam
Vingroup announced this month that its first batch of ventilators have rolled off the factory line and been donated to Singapore, Russia, and Ukraine. The larger economies are still in the thick of the COVID-19 fight. Russia last week was accused of hacking western scientists for a vaccine, while Singapore reached the most COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia in April after it overlooked its migrant worker population.
“We have all seen the mutual support in the hardest of periods,” the Ambassador of Russia to Vietnam Konstantin Vnukov said this month. “The ceremony of awarding ventilators to the Russian Federation today continued to affirm our fruitful friendship.”
Vingroup has become a sprawling company that operates in nearly every sector in Vietnam. Billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong, who founded the company, told Bloomberg he wants it to keep helping the fast-growing nation reach milestone after milestone. That ranges from Vinfast, the first consumer car produced in and by Vietnam, to ventilators now, a crucial product that has become highly sought after amid the COVID-19 emergency.
No cases since April
Perhaps no other company is as identified with Vietnam’s national brand as Vingroup. It has worked closely with the government to get its ventilators up to technical standards and approved to be shipped.
“The Ministry of Health will continue to accompany Vingroup and other manufacturers to develop products and facilitate early evaluation to put products into production, meeting the needs of society in the control and prevention of COVID-19,” said Nguyen Minh Tuan, the Director of the Department of Medical Equipment and Health Works under the Ministry of Health, in a press release sent out by Vingroup.
The company’s steps during the COVID-19 emergency have moved in parallel with those of the state. Vietnam identified domestic cases of the coronavirus early on, quarantined patients and two layers of their contacts, and restricted movement before the virus could become unmanageable. Without any local infections since April, the communist nation then lent its disease-fighting powers abroad, sending donations of ventilators, test kits, masks and other aid to recipients from Europe to Laos.
Vingroup said it does not make a profit on the ventilators and sent 500 to Russia, 300 to Ukraine and 200 to Singapore. It aims to ship another 1,600 machines by the end of August and to produce as many as 55,000 units a month. The ventilators are based on open-source technology made available through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the company said.
If Vingroup was to consider moving to mass production and profit making on the ventilators, government approval would be needed.