Officials at Boise, Idaho-based oxygen equipment company MGI Inc., say the biggest bottleneck in treating COVID-19 patients isn’t ventilator and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages. It’s something much simpler: oxygen delivery. 

“While not every coronavirus patient needs to be hooked up to a ventilator, every patient does receive medical-grade oxygen at some point during their hospitalization. Oxygen flowmeters and oxygen pressure regulators are the two devices responsible for delivering this life-saving gas to patients, but they are in short supply, and not being discussed,” says MGI President Kyle Black.

With demand surging worldwide since the onset of the pandemic, suppliers and manufacturers involved in the production and sales of oxygen equipment have been inundated with purchase requests; however, with only two to three manufacturers in the North America, there are no devices in stock. Specifically, healthcare providers can expect a four-to eight-week lead time for orders as small as 10 regulators—but with thousands of new patients being admitted daily, scalability issues could get much worse, Black says.

While some manufacturers, such as Amico, Harris, and Western Medica, have been developing more efficient solutions for the delivery of oxygen, such as increasing the flowmeter capacity of medical gas outlets, issues still exist with manufacturing capacity and COVID-19-related labor shortages. So, what’s a healthcare provider to do? Well, many have been getting in line, but an increasing number of providers and governments are turning to Chinese manufacturing.

At only a fraction of the cost of units made in the U.S. and Canada, oxygen regulators and flowmeters can be purchased for less than $10 in China, compared to U.S. models that can cost more than $200. And while these Chinese manufacturers claim that their oxygen flow meters and regulators meet ISO:13485 international safety standards for manufacturing, medical devices used in the U.S. require additional certifications, Black says.

While this may deter some of the more sophisticated healthcare providers in the U.S. and abroad, some providers—either by accident or in a rush to serve their overflowing patient capacity—will inevitably purchase this equipment, Black says. In fact, countries experiencing surges in COVID-19 cases, including those in Latin America and the Caribbean, have been some of the largest consumers of these Chinese-made goods. 

Specifically, nations with tighter budgets and less stringent healthcare compliance codes, such as Guatemala, are almost exclusively purchasing Chinese-made oxygen equipment—and with the already shaky reputation of Chinese-made medical equipment’s already, Black fears the rush to meet large-scale demand will translate to lapses in quality assurance. And this, he says, could prove catastrophic for healthcare providers around the world.

Black says additional equipment needed in the fight against COVID-19 includes medical gas wall outlets and medical gas alarm panels—both of which are at risk of issues related to Chinese manufacturing and lack of support during the medical gas installation process.

Featured image: These shelves normally hold between 2,000 and 5,000 oxygen regulators and oxygen flowmeters, but with increasing demand, manufacturers and suppliers cannot keep shelves stocked.