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U.S. Factories Helped Win World War II. They Can Do It Again.

Brooke Sutherland

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When you’re in a critical fight, you need to use all the weapons at your disposal. And so, it’s time once again for America to marshal its great arsenal of democracy. Just as Detroit automakers became aircraft, tank and gun manufacturers during World War II, today’s industrial companies need to repurpose their factories for the tools needed to fight the current enemy: the coronavirus.

Countries across the globe sealed their borders over the weekend and relegated citizens to the confines of their homes in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly virus before it overwhelms the Western World’s health-care systems. The president of Massachusetts General Hospital called on Sunday for the federal government to go into a “war-like stance” and launch a “Manhattan Project” to accelerate production of protective gear. No such plan has been announced by the Trump administration, but U.S. industrial companies should heed the call anyway. Because as far as wars go, this is one for which the country is woefully unprepared.

The U.S. has fewer than 170,000 ventilators available for patient care, including estimates for those in the national stockpile, according to a report last month from the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (The school is supported by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.) The number of face masks in that strategic reserve was depleted in the swine-flu outbreak of 2009 and as of early March it held only about 12 million N95 respirators and 30 million surgical masks, significantly fewer than the 3.5 billion masks experts estimate the U.S. would need in a severe pandemic, according to the Washington Post. It falls to private manufacturers to step in and fill the void.

With airlines parking jets, consumers locked in their homes and companies focusing on managing the disruption, demand for jet engines, HVAC systems and factory equipment is going to shrivel up for the near future. Rather than sit idle, American factories should be redeployed for the products needed to fight the coronavirus, whether that’s face masks, ventilators, other health-care equipment or even toilet paper for that matter. The Trump administration has already leaned heavily on companies such as Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings, Roche Holding AG and Walmart Inc. to improve the availability and access to testing. But White House virus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx warned on Sunday that there will be a spike in cases as more people get access to tests. That’s when the real work is going to begin for the nation’s hospitals. It’s in every U.S. company’s interest to make sure they’re as prepared as possible, and manufacturers have a key role to play. Companies such as 3M Co. and Honeywell International Inc. already make masks and personal-protective gear, but they will need help to meet the huge demand.

After China declared a “people’s war” on the outbreak in that country, companies including electric automaker BYD Co., petroleum refiner Sinopec and iPhone assembler Foxconn started making masks instead. French luxury-goods maker LVMH announced Sunday it’s converting perfume and cosmetics factories to make hand sanitizer, which it will deliver free of charge to the local authorities and hospital system. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson is calling on manufacturers including Dyson, Unipart Group, Honda and Ford to help with that country’s ventilator shortage, according to the Financial Times. American companies need to follow this lead. Apart from the moral and patriotic implications, it’s just good business sense. The faster the world responds to this health crisis, the faster it can get back on its feet.

To contact the author of this story: Brooke Sutherland at bsutherland7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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