CEO of ventilator maker speaks out as Trump invokes Defense Production Act

Lisa Cavazuti and Cynthia McFadden and Christine Romo

The chief executive of a Seattle company partnering with General Motors to produce ventilators says they were already moving forward with plans to roll out the life-saving medical equipment before President Donald Trump decided to invoke the Defense Production Act.

"We plan to be producing together over 1,000 units by the end of April and of course with GM's talent and skill, we'll be ramping up to 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000," Ventec Life Systems CEO Chris Kiple said in an exclusive interview with NBC News.

Trump on Friday night invoked the rarely-used Korean War-era law to order GM to increase production of ventilators as the country grapples with escalating numbers of COVID-19 cases.

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"We were just not getting there with GM," Trump said at a news conference.

Image: A Ventec Life Systems worker operates on a VOCSN machine, which combines the work of five respiratory medical devices into one. (Ventec Life Systems)

Earlier in the day, Trump attacked the Detroit automaker in a series of tweets, criticizing it for not moving quickly enough to produce ventilators and requesting “top dollar” for the contract.

“As usual with ‘this’ General Motors, things just never seem to work out,” Trump tweeted. “They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, ‘very quickly’. Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar."

GM and Ventec said afterward they were preparing to roll out as many as 10,000 ventilators a month, many of which would be produced on a new assembly line at a GM facility in Indiana.

"Ventec, GM and our supply base have been working around the clock for over a week to meet this urgent need," the companies added in a Friday afternoon statement.

In the interview, Kiple responded to reports that FEMA pulled back from a deal with GM-Ventec after the companies asked for a $1.5 billion contract.

"We provided the government with a range of options, ranging from a thousand units a month to 21,000 units a month and a whole host of pricing that went with that," Kiple said. "So we gave the government a menu of options to present to and just tried to respond to their request for information to say how many can you produce and how fast."

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Ventec is one of about a dozen worldwide manufacturers of ventilators. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the med-tech company has been on the front lines even before it teamed up with GM. In its Seattle-area facility alone, the company made around 300 devices in the last 30 days.

"This is really an unprecedented activity that GM and Ventec are in to mass produce a ventilator with an auto-manufacturer," Kiple said. "The commitment from GM has been overwhelming."

Speaking before the president invoked the Defense Production Act, Kiple said his company was dedicated to producing ventilators regardless of whether the government purchases them.

"We are going to continue to manufacture them where the need arises," Kiple said.

"Whether it's the federal government, the state governments, hospitals, medical professionals on the frontline, there is a need here not just in the United States but around the world and General Motors and Ventec Life Systems will rise to meet that demand and as soon as that demand isn't there, we'll lessen our production."