COVID-19 critical supplies: the manufacturing repurposing challenge

Authors: Carlos López-Gómez, Lucia Corsini, David Leal-Ayala and Smeeta Fokeer

Key messages:
  • Repurposing is a rapid response solution to address the global shortage of COVID-19 critical items that can save lives by using idle manufacturing capacity.

  • Repurposing is in principle a temporary strategy, but one that can be expensive and fraught with challenges, explaining the limited results so far.

  • Opportunities exist to leverage on proven designs and methods; starting from scratch or trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’ can lead to significant delays.

  • Policy responses are essential to help manufacturers address repurposing challenges and facilitate the transition to the new “normal” after COVID-19.

  • The development of a rapid repurposing roadmap, reflecting national priorities and context, could provide a coherent and holistic structure to support effective policy responses.

Summary:

As the global COVID-19 emergency continues to unfold, one urgent problem is the shortage of critical supplies such as masks, ventilator and test kits for both the healthcare sector and the wider population. Policy makers are calling for firms across manufacturing sectors to temporarily repurpose their production in order to increase global production capacity. Building on a recent study, this article reviews some of the key manufacturing challenges involved in repurposing and discusses potential ways to mitigate them.


Repurposing is necessary to manufacture life-saving products

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a list of COVID-19 critical items facing global shortage, grouped into three categories (Table 1). Ideally, manufacturers would address the spike in demand by simply speeding and scaling up production. Despite efforts by companies to expand their current capacity, governments utilizing accumulated stockpiles, and people switching to substitutes, there is still a gap between the supply and demand of these essential products. The gap is likely to continue to grow before a vaccine against COVID-19 is found, hindering efforts to effectively fight the pandemic around the world.


Table 1: COVID-19 critical items and what might be repurposed

Note: List of critical items identified by WHO on 30 March 2020; examples of manufacturing facilities based on government communications and media reports.


Governments around the world are calling on manufacturers to temporarily repurpose their manufacturing lines to meet this shortfall. Japan is providing business subsidies to ramp up the production of masks; the UK has set up a “ventilator challenge” which aerospace, automotive and ICT firms have responded to; China is repurposing state-owned enterprises; and the US is issuing ventilator contracts to automotive firms. However, the repurposing journey is fraught with challenges.


Naturally, different levels of repurposing are required to manufacture COVID-19 critical items, depending on the items’ level of complexity. Repurposing to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) is less technically complex and can, in principle, be achieved quicker than the production, for example, of clinical care