By Drazen Jorgic and Lizbeth Diaz
MEXICO CITY/TIJUANA, April 1 (Reuters) - Mexico's medical device industry is scrambling to meet an eleven-fold jump in demand for ventilators as patients with respiratory conditions linked to the coronavirus pandemic overwhelm hospitals in the United States and Europe.
At the same time as some medical instrument companies in the United States are teaming up with auto manufacturers to rapidly turn production lines over to the life-saving machines, others are retooling their factories south of the border.
U.S. medical device firm Hillrom is due to start building ventilators in Tijuana, while companies such as Vyaire Medical, Fisher & Paykel and Getinge are either boosting production of auxiliary ventilator parts or other coronavirus-linked products such as masks and protective clothing.
"You can't flip a switch and turn them on overnight. But the world can't afford for us to wait six months," said Howard Karesh, Hillrom spokesman.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic drove demand for medical products through the roof, Mexico was the top source of imported medical devices for the United States. The $17 billion industry is one of Mexico's biggest export sectors.
That could now be a source of bilateral friction. U.S. reliance on imported medical equipment has been exposed as a strategic weakness during the pandemic, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said on Monday, while some in Mexico warn that the country may soon need the equipment for itself as cases rise.
Ventilator machines pump oxygen into the lungs of patients with acute respiratory problems, helping to avoid lung failure, which is common with the worst-impacted coronavirus patients. Shortages led to deaths in Italy.
A Mexican medical devices association and Tijuana's local government both told Reuters that demand for ventilators has jumped 1000% following the coronavirus outbreak, which has caused nearly 4,000 deaths in the United States and more than 43,000 worldwide.
Requests for other coronavirus-related equipment have also soared, with demand for thermostats up 150%, probe covers 300% and medical anti-bacterial solutions 430%, according to Arturo Perez, secretary of economic development for Tijuana.
The industry was on Tuesday included on a Mexican government list of "essential activities," allowing factories to stay open despite a nationwide shutdown hitting most businesses.
"We... must continue operating because we are going to save lives and mitigate the pandemic," said Miguel Angel Felix Diaz Alonso, treasurer of a Mexican industry association representing 76 medical manufacturers in Baja California.
The Mexican medical devices industry expanded 9% last year and in 2018 exports totalled $17.1 billion, the association said. Numbers on the volume of ventilators produced were not immediately available.
About a third of all medical equipment in the United States was imported in 2018. Mexico was the top U.S. supplier, accounting for about 17% of total imports, according to a report by Fitch Solutions.
Hillrom, which manufactures ventilators in California, said it was due to increase production capacity of its Life2000 model five-fold on an annualized basis, and would also begin producing the machines in its Tijuana factory.
New Zealand firm Fisher & Paykel Healthcare said it was increasing Mexico production of humidification devices and associated consumables, which are used alongside ventilators.
Integer, a U.S.-listed medical business, said it was increasing production of ventilator and patient monitoring device batteries at least threefold per month in its Tijuana facility.
Hospitals in the United States are also reporting shortages of medical N-95 masks, protective clothing and other equipment.
Stryker, which also has a plant in Tijuana, is expanding global production of defibrillators and patient hygiene, disinfecting and surgical protection products, as well as hospital beds and stretchers.
"We are also exploring expansion into new product areas such as masks and we are working with... (U.S. regulators) to accelerate the approval of essential personal protection equipment," a company spokeswoman said.
MEXICO TURNS TO CHINA
While its own industry focuses on meeting demand from abroad, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's government has sought to double the domestic healthcare system's ventilator capacity by ordering 5,000 machines from China.
Three Mexican medical industry executives told Reuters the government had not contacted them to request higher production or to divert ventilators earmarked for export towards Mexican hospitals.
The presidency directed questions on why Mexico was not tapping its domestic industry to the health ministry. The ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Mexico's approach contrasts with that of many nations, who have enacted wartime mobilization measures to boost production and stop local manufacturers exporting ventilators.
Mexico is several weeks behind the United States in terms of the spread of the coronavirus, with 1,215 confirmed cases and 29 deaths.
But with infection numbers growing and officials warning the health system could be overwhelmed, Lopez Obrador may find himself under pressure to capture more ventilator capacity at home.
Alejandro Macias, Mexico's former pandemics tsar and chief medical adviser during the 2009 swine flu outbreak, forecast Mexico will need at least 30,000 ventilators during the peak of the crisis.
"If I was the president... I would tell those producers 'you are in Mexico, we need a share of that production'," he said. (Reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Lizbeth Diaz; Additional reporting by Raul Cortes Fernandez; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O'Brien)