Is National Ventilator Project a 'slightly delayed' success, or massive failure?

The department of trade and industry (DTI) has defended delays in the R250 million National Ventilator Project, which to date has yet to reach 50% of its initial target. The project was funded by the Solidarity Fund and run by the department of trade and industry, In July, the Solidarity Fund approved the additional funding of R405 million towards the purchase of critical healthcare equipment for public hospitals in the highly affected Gauteng, Western Cape, and Eastern Cape provinces. But even though infection and death numbers have remained relatively low in Africa, a shortage of ventilators could pose the biggest...
The department of trade and industry (DTI) has defended delays in the R250 million National Ventilator Project, which to date has yet to reach 50% of its initial target.

The project was funded by the Solidarity Fund and run by the department of trade and industry,

In July, the Solidarity Fund approved the additional funding of R405 million towards the purchase of critical healthcare equipment for public hospitals in the highly affected Gauteng, Western Cape, and Eastern Cape provinces.

But even though infection and death numbers have remained relatively low in Africa, a shortage of ventilators could pose the biggest risk of healthcare systems becoming overwhelmed.

When the pandemic hit South Africa, the country had 3,300 ventilators, with two thirds of them being in private hospitals, meaning the majority of patients needing them may likely not have been able to access them during the pandemic.

As the disease's deadliest symptom is respiratory failure, government made it clear that the National Ventilator Project would be made a priority endeavor.

However by 24 August, the project only announced the delivery of 35 out of nearly 1,000 ventilators, which was scheduled to arrive at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg, Gauteng.

According to DTI spokesperson Sidwell Medupi, the project was far from a failure and has only been delayed by budget issues.

"Covid-19 took us all by surprise and these things were never in anyone's budget, it was money coming from the Solidarity Fund and so that was what made the initial stages have slight delays," Medupi said.

"As we speak, we now have over 7,000 units and those have been delivered to public hospitals around the country. The two provinces which received the bulk of these are these are Gauteng (2,417) and KZN (2,051), because as you know this is where the demand was high," he added.

The initial target set by trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel was 20,000 non-invasive C-PAP ventilators. These target were changed several times, according to the Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow trade minister, Dean McPherson.

Like many countries in Africa, a shortage of ventilators threatened to exacerbate the healthcare burden posed by Covid-19.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) had estimated around 14% of Covid-19 patients would require hospitalisation and oxygen support, and about 5% would need a ventilator – generally found in an intensive care unit (ICU).

Much lower numbers delivered

Gauteng health department spokesperson Kwara Kekana said she was only aware of 36 ventilators sent to Charlotte Maxeke.

Referring other questions to managers of the project, Kekana added that she doesn't think Gauteng was initially earmarked to receive as many as 1,000 ventilators from it.

Meanwhile, Free State health department spokesperson Mondli Mvambi said the provincial government foreseen a greater need for invasive ventilators than for non-invasive ventilators in the coming months, as small pockets of the province have already flared up with cases after the national slump was hit in August.

On non-invasive ventilators, Mvambi said the Free State has reached a point where all hospitals have been provided for and no more are required.

The province was already in short supply of invasive ventilators prior to the pandemic, he continued to say.

"There's therefore a need to be strengthened throughout both for Covid-19 and non Covid-19 patients. The Department has also increased the number of ICU beds to fulfill this need, and therefore invasive ventilators are still in short supply.

"The Department is not sure of what will happen with a possible resurgence and we need to be prepared for any eventuality. We have seen high rates of transmission already in a few areas," Mvambi added.

"A complete failure"?

The DA believes that the project has been a complete failure.

"First they said they would make 10,000 units by the end of June and that was later increased to 15,000 units by the end of July, without them having made a single one.

"My concern is that R11 million was spent from the Solidarity Fund, which the DTI contributed to as well."

To date the DA, according to McPherson has yet to receive an update from government on the project.

McPherson said the DA would probe the government in Parliament next week on what was being planned for the future of the project, now that the country's Covid-19 infection rate has stabilised.

He stressed that the Western Cape, the one-time epicenter of the pandemic in the country, refused delivery of the ventilators due to a lack of demand.

But, according to Medupi, South Africa could soon be exporting the ventilators to other African countries with a shortage of the equipment.

He cites this as another reason why the manufacturing project will likely keep running long after the Covid-19 pandemic has subsided.

"What we can tell you is as it stands now, manufacturers will await the directive of the Department of Health on the way forward.

"But what should be noted is that these ventilators have application potential for the treatment of other respiratory diseases, not just Covid-19, and people will still need ventilators after the pandemic," Medupi explained.

"The other important thing to note is that the production of these ventilators is also expected to be earmarked for exporting as soon as a determination on domestic need has been clarified.

"Remember, there are other African countries who will still need this equipment."

Simnikiweh@citizen.co.za

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