James Park, chief executive officer of Fitbit Inc.
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Fitbit, which makes wearable devices including fitness-trackers, is shifting its supply chain to make emergency-use ventilators, CEO James Park told CNBC.
The company is submitting its technology to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the coming days, Park said. A team started working on the ventilators after consulting with emergency room physicians, including at Massachusetts General and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
“There was a lot of concern about the shortage of ventilators and we realized we had expertise already around the supply chain,” said Park.
In the U.S., hospitals in some states experienced severe ventilator shortages in March as hospitals rushed to treat the first waves of Covid-19 patients with severe breathing problems. However, the country is facing a surplus of ventilators right now as industries responded to calls from President Trump and other leaders to build more, according to the Associated Press. In addition, some recent medical studies have shown that ventilators are not very effective in preventing deaths in coronavirus patients, causing some doctors to favor less-invasive measures.
Nonetheless, if cases surge again once the country re-opens, demand for ventilators could increase again. Fitbit’s Park said the company would build the vents to meet the level of demand, both in the United States and in countries around the world.
“I think one of the advantages for us is that we have the infrastructure and manufacturing capability,” Park said. “We already make 10 million (wearable) devices per year, and we plan to leverage that to make deliver product at whatever volumes are needed.”
Fitbit sold more than 100 million fitness trackers and other wearables before the company announced it would sell itself to Google for $2.1 billion last November. That deal is still under review.
Fitbit will soon submit plans to the FDA under the agency’s Emergency Use Authorization, which would allow the device to be used specifically for Covid-19 patients. A spokesperson said that the company will work with an existing vendor in Taiwan to ramp up the ventilators once the FDA approves its request.
Fitbit emergency ventilator prototype
Park said the company has not yet honed in on the cost of the device. He intends for the devices to be the “most advanced” emergency user ventilator that’s still available at a “lower” price point. Premium ventilators cost anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000, but some alternatives developed specifically for Covid-19 have only basic functions and typically cost far less.
David Sheridan, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at OHSU, said he and several of his colleagues helped provide feedback to Fitbit about the core components that the ventilators would need. Some of the emergency ventilators, he notes, are “really low resource,” but Fitbit wanted to come up with something more sophisticated while maintaining the lower price point.
Sheridan said he expects the final product to be “somewhere in the middle” between an emergency ventilator and a premium-grade one.
For Fitbit, the ventilators are intended to be temporary and short-term. It’s not a signal of a longer-term interest in making sophisticated medical devices.
“We don’t plan on this being a permanent line of our business,” he said.