DETROIT -- The partnership looked promising.
On March 18, General Motors CEO Mary Barra told President Donald Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow that the automaker might be able to help make much-needed ventilators, the scarce breathing machines used to keep coronavirus patients alive.
The deal would help the company, which has had tense relations with Trump. It would help the administration, which faced charges that the pandemic caught it napping. Most importantly, it would help the sickest patients, those facing death without machines to breathe for them.
But not 10 days later, Trump accused GM of foot-dragging and price-gouging in its effort to replenish the supply of medical equipment. “Always a mess with Mary B,” Trump tweeted, just hours before invoking the Defense Production Act, which allowed him to order GM to move.
Newly revealed details show that GM has been continuously engaged in the effort -- order or no order -- and company officials say the sprint from first phone call to production will take about a month. A parallel effort by Ford Motor Co. isn’t expected to bear fruit until June, though the company said it is speeding up its work.
Trump did an about face Sunday, saying GM is doing a “fantastic job.”
Even as Trump was excoriating GM on Friday, the automaker and its Seattle-area partner, Ventec Life Systems Inc., were closing in on a production date to build a machine called a VOCSN: ventilator, oxygen, cough, suction and nebulizer. When they start in mid-April, it will culminate a lightning effort to convert an auto parts plant into a medical-equipment complex.
“The speed has been challenging,” Gerald Johnson, GM’s global vice president of manufacturing, said in a Sunday night interview. “But we know it will save thousands of lives. Making cars is cool, but it doesn’t compare to what we’re doing.”
Efforts to reach Trump administration officials for comment weren’t immediately successful late Sunday.
The sprint started with exploratory phone calls on March 17 from an ad hoc group of business leaders called StoptheSpread.org. It was seeking ways to make up for what some members saw as a slow federal response to Covid-19. The group is led by retired American Express Co. Chairman Ken Chenault and Rachel Carlson, founder of online education firm Guild Education Inc.
They asked Barra’s team what they needed to make ventilators. GM needed a ventilator-making partner with an established product and a medical sales force.
For his part, Ventec CEO Chris Kiple said that he needed a partner with mass-manufacturing expertise, factories and a work force to produce on a huge scale to help cities like New York as patients overwhelm hospitals.
General Motors and Ventec Life Systems are partnering to convert the GM Kokomo, Ind., ERC building for the production of Ventec ventilators in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.