Against the backdrop of various efforts to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, several initiatives have been launched to purchase and manufacture enough ventilators to save patients’ lives if infection rates continue to climb.
In order to assist in this effort, Medhat Nafea, the head of the Metallurgical Industries Holding Company affiliated with the Public Business Sector Ministry, has made the holding company’s factory affiliates available for the manufacture of ventilators. Mada Masr spoke to Nafea to learn more about the initiative and the possibilities it offers.
Mada Masr: Doesn’t Egypt currently produce ventilators?
Medhat Nafea: To my knowledge, Egypt doesn’t currently produce ventilators. Moreover, not all ventilators are equipped for dealing with patients who have contracted COVID-19. This disease requires a special kind of ventilator. What hinders the manufacture of these types of ventilators is patenting, meaning that, even if Egypt was able to produce these devices, it would have had to deal with patent owners.
But now we’re seeing some of the biggest corporations in the world in the field of medical equipment engineering making their designs available, such as Medtronic, which has released a design for a portable ventilator, along with other companies that have provided designs as well.
There’s also another stumbling block, which is that this kind of manufacturing is specialized and requires a very high degree of technology. And generally, in times of need, you resort to automobile manufacturing companies, like how the US president has turned to General Motors, or how Mercedes and Ford have begun producing these devices.
MM: What do the manufacture of automobiles and ventilators have in common?
MN: Technical issues related to the assembly process and assembly lines. Although, they’re not identical. What’s best, of course, is to use companies that specialize in the production of these devices but, even if these companies existed in Egypt, they would be forced to work beyond their capacities in light of the current situation. Therefore, other companies need to work with them.
However, local companies that work on automobile assembly — Nasco Automotive or the Engineering Automotive Manufacturing Company (EAMCO) — use technology that is somewhat outdated. But, as long as the infrastructure for the manufacturing process is there, it is possible to incorporate certain additional requirements to convert them to produce ventilators.
MM: What is the first step, then?
MN: I contacted research groups working on the initial designs for ventilators to provide me with a list of additional requirements necessary to convert the currently available infrastructure in the companies [affiliated with Metallurgical Industries Holding Company] to infrastructure capable of producing ventilators. And I will work to make these available while these groups produce the first prototype to be approved later, according to standardized specifications, probably by the Health Ministry and engineering departments [of various universities]. Then, the production process begins.
These research groups are medical engineering groups: one at the University of Alexandria and the other at Zewail University, two research teams that may have already been doing this work before we considered this manufacturing initiative. The first thing that I can offer these groups is to provide an incubator or a network that brings them together in a way that speeds up the research process and allows them to coordinate with one another. I can also provide other resources, locally or internationally, as well as suitable spaces for the research process, such as workshops, using these subsidiaries [to the holding company].
In Alexandria, I can provide spaces in my copper company or the Alexandria Company for Refractories. In Cairo, the field is wider. We will also provide human resources, from mechanical engineers already available at the subsidiaries of the Metallurgical Industries Holding Company. Moreover, I have already begun to turn to private sister companies and suppliers to the subsidiaries [of the holding company] to seek information about the possibility of obtaining certain parts that I already knew we might need.
MM: What about the labor force? Do you have the necessary capabilities to shift to the production of ventilators?
MN: It is important to note that, in this context, the plan is to shift toward a process based on assembly rather than full manufacturing, because full manufacturing may require a transition that could take over 10 years.
Also, the designs that Medtronic made available are assembly-based designs, not manufacturing ones. And, in this case, I think that shifting labor power to work on the assembly of ventilator components is possible. If we find that it is more complicated than our current capabilities, we will seek out workers who are able to do so.
MM: What happens if the holding company’s factories are not capable of meeting the demands of this kind of production?
MN: In this case, we will contact the Military Production Ministry and the Arab Organization for Industrialization. Our efforts can be integrated together. Production does not have to be handled by just one party.
MM: When do you expect to be able to begin production?
MN: If the group of researchers completes the prototype within a week and we are able to obtain approval for it within another week, we will work to start the manufacturing process within a month.
MM: How many ventilators does Egypt need?
MN: What I know is that, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not yet reached a state of crisis like that seen in other countries. Therefore, I’m not managing this project from a crisis management standpoint but a risk management one. This means we will expect the worst-case scenario, based on scenarios like the one in Italy, for example, in terms of the percentage of people infected in relation to the total population.
Therefore, I think the right thing to do is to produce as many ventilators as possible, i.e., a surplus in production that we would consider necessary to deal with a worst-case scenario.
MM: What about funding?
MN: Funding isn’t an issue. The first stage of the project — related to research and making requirements available — can be self-financed by the Metallurgical Industries Holding Company. In the following stages, additional financing may be required, perhaps through the Finance Ministry or even from banks.
I’m confident we won’t face any problems in this area.
MM: Is the goal is to meet the requirements of public hospitals only?
MN: The first goal is to meet the requirements of public hospitals, but, if private hospitals are allowed to deal with COVID-19, then we will seek to meet their needs in terms of ventilators as well. In addition, we will endeavor to make ventilators available for personal use in private residences in cases of self-isolation, which is necessary to alleviate anxiety around the small number of hospital beds available.