Singapore has started churning out ventilators to meet the global shortage as Covid-19 cases worldwide surged past the 13 million mark.
Home-grown medical device company Advanced MedTech, which is wholly owned by Singapore's Temasek, has received emergency approval from the Health Sciences Authority for its Alpha ventilator.
Even before emergency approval was received yesterday, it had already received inquiries and advance orders from countries like India and Indonesia.
It expects to ramp up production to about 200 a month before the end of the year, and eventually to 1,000 a month if it also receives non-emergency approval, which will allow the device to be used outside of an emergency.
Mr Abel Ang, the company's group chief executive, is confident the ventilator will meet international standards. The company has already filed for approval with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States.
He said the Alpha ventilator is the world's first telehealth ventilator and ideally suited for treating patients with infectious diseases.
Unlike conventional ventilators which have to be read and adjusted manually, it can be tweaked both manually as well as remotely with a computer.
This reduces the need for healthcare workers to gear up with personal protection equipment to take readings or make any adjustments.
This can be especially useful in large countries, as it enables an expert to manage several telehealth ventilators from a central location.
Since the device is controlled over the Internet, distance is not a factor, said Mr Ang.
He added that the use of a ventilator is complex, and not just a matter of fitting the patient onto the machine and switching it on.
"Weaning the patient off a ventilator is equally important. If it is not done correctly, a patient may still die," he said.
The machine, which weighs less than 4kg, is also portable, with a battery life of three hours.
This way, if a patient is put on a ventilator in an ambulance, the same ventilator can go with the patient into the hospital - instead of having to take the patient off a portable ventilator and plugging him into one at the hospital, Mr Ang said.
The company started looking at manufacturing ventilators following Temasek's "battle cry" to all its subsidiaries early in the year to take up arms against Covid-19.
When Covid-19 exploded globally in February and March, countries were scrambling for ventilators since patients who are seriously ill usually need help with breathing for several days.
Despite the soaring prices, there was a massive shortage globally, which has still not been resolved.
Countries whose healthcare systems were overwhelmed had mortality rates of more than 10 per cent, while those that were able to cope well had rates of about 1 per cent.
In March, Mr Ang contacted ABM Respiratory Care - a small medical device company with offices here, in India and the US - which has an FDA-approved respiratory device for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to help them cough out phlegm.
He asked if the device could be converted into a ventilator as both types of equipment pump air into the lungs. Advanced MedTech invested US$10 million (S$14 million) to facilitate the research needed to convert it into a ventilator and for its manufacture.
With local production of ventilators, Singapore hospitals are guaranteed a supply. But Mr Ang said he does not want something that is only for the current pandemic.
He expects continued demand, given the Alpha ventilator's advantage in remote control.
Several hospitals in India have rejected cheap, rapidly produced ventilators that work only if a tube is inserted into a patient's lung - claiming that such invasive treatment, if not required, could harm Covid-19 patients whose lungs are already affected by the disease.
Mr Ang said the Alpha ventilator is able to provide both invasive and non-invasive oxygen: "We did not want to offer an overly simplified ventilator to the market."
The firm plans to add another floor to its plant in Tuas, which was opened only two years ago, so production can be ramped up.
Pricing will be competitive, he said. Hospital ventilators cost around US$25,000 each while travel ventilators used in ambulances sell for US$10,000 to US$15,000 each.
The Alpha ventilator will retail for less than US$10,000, Mr Ang said.