The path not taken.
- Oct 9, 2009
- Reaction score
As the coronavirus spreads, the collapse of the project helps explain America’s acute shortage.
In 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services established a new division, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, with a mandate to prepare medical responses to chemical, biological and nuclear attacks, as well as infectious diseases.
In its first year in operation, the research agency considered how to expand the number of ventilators. It estimated that an additional 70,000 machines would be required in a moderate influenza pandemic.
The ventilators in the national stockpile were not ideal. In addition to being big and expensive, they required a lot of training to use. The research agency convened a panel of experts in November 2007 to devise a set of requirements for a new generation of mobile, easy-to-use ventilators.
In 2008, the government requested proposals from companies that were interested in designing and building the ventilators.
The goal was for the machines to be approved by regulators for mass development by 2010 or 2011, according to budget documents that the Department of Health and Human Services submitted to Congress in 2008. After that, the government would buy as many as 40,000 new ventilators and add them to the national stockpile.
The ventilators were to cost less than $3,000 each. The lower the price, the more machines the government would be able to buy.
Companies submitted bids for the Project Aura job. The research agency opted not to go with a large, established device maker. Instead it chose Newport Medical Instruments, a small outfit in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Newport, which was owned by a Japanese medical device company, only made ventilators. Being a small, nimble company, Newport executives said, would help it efficiently fulfill the government’s needs.
Ventilators at the time typically went for about $10,000 each, and getting the price down to $3,000 would be tough. But Newport’s executives bet they would be able to make up for any losses by selling the ventilators around the world.
“It would be very prestigious to be recognized as a supplier to the federal government,” said Richard Crawford, who was Newport’s head of research and development at the time. “We thought the international market would be strong, and there is where Newport would have a good profit on the product.”
Federal officials were pleased. In addition to replenishing the national stockpile, “we also thought they’d be so attractive that the commercial market would want to buy them, too,” said Nicole Lurie, who was then the assistant secretary for preparedness and response inside the Department of Health and Human Services. With luck, the new generation of ventilators would become ubiquitous, helping hospitals nationwide better prepare for a crisis.
The contract was officially awarded a few months after the H1N1 outbreak, which the C.D.C. estimated infected 60 million and killed 12,000 in the United States, began to taper off in 2010. The contract called for Newport to receive $6.1 million upfront, with the expectation that the government would pay millions more as it bought thousands of machines to fortify the stockpile.
Project Aura was Newport’s first job for the federal government. Things moved quickly and smoothly, employees and federal officials said in interviews.
Every three months, officials with the biomedical research agency would visit Newport’s headquarters. Mr. Crawford submitted monthly reports detailing the company’s spending and progress.
The federal officials “would check everything,” he said. “If we said we were buying equipment, they would want to know what it was used for. There were scheduled visits, scheduled requirements and deliverables each month.”
In 2011, Newport shipped three working prototypes from the company’s California plant to Washington for federal officials to review.
Dr. Frieden, who ran the C.D.C. at the time, got a demonstration in a small conference room attached to his office. “I got all excited,” he said. “It was a multiyear effort that had resulted in something that was going to be really useful.”
In April 2012, a senior Health and Human Services official testified before Congress that the program was “on schedule to file for market approval in September 2013.” After that, the machines would go into production.
Then everything changed.
On a side note, there are growing calls for FEMA to be restored as an independent Cabinet-level agency and for the Strategic National Stockpile to be permanently placed under it in the future.