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The High-Stakes Race to Build More Ventilators

The US is short of ventilators to help Covid-19 patients breathe. Ford, GM, and satellite-launch company Virgin Orbit are trying to fill the gap.

AS HE LOADED the 3D printer into the back of his Jeep, Kevin Zagorski figured he wouldn’t be back in his office for a while. It was Friday night, March 20, and Virgin Orbit, the satellite launch company that spun out of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic a few years back, had limited work at its Long Beach, California, operation to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. The engineer drove home, thinking he’d spend some time experimenting with 3D-printed attachments to let his colleagues open doors without touching the handles. But that first weekend at home, his manager called with a new assignment.

Before Monday rolled around, Zagorski was working with a group of doctors to design a new low-cost, scalable ventilator to keep air in the lungs of the sickest Americans suffering from Covid-19. By mid-week, he and about a dozen fellow engineers had produced a prototype of a mechanized bag valve mask, also called an Ambu bag, the handheld device EMTs use to pump air into a patient’s lungs. Now they’re on their third generation, which they think they can start mass producing in coming days, pending regulatory approval.

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