Innoson Motors has approached the Nigerian government for a loan as it prepares to start producing ventilators and other medical equipment to support the country's beleaguered public health infrastructure, the company told PREMIUM TIMES Wednesday.
The company this week asked for N4 billion to help fast-track its production of ventilators and protective gears that may prove critical in Nigeria's battle to mitigate COVID-19 casualties, Obinna Chukwuma, an executive director at Innoson, told PREMIUM TIMES.
"We plan to add the loan to our existing financial and technical resources to produce a good number of ventilators within a short period of time," Mr Chukwuma said. "The time is running out and our available resources cannot be sufficient for what the country would require in critical medical equipment."
To secure the facility quickly, Innoson has approached the Central Bank of Nigeria, through the presidential task force on coronavirus, and a private bank, officials said.
"We made it a two-way approach with the hope that either would work out quickly for us to start producing these life-saving equipment for the Nigerian population," Cornel Osigwe, Innoson's chief spokesperson, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Innoson has built cars locally in Nigeria for more than a decade. The indigenous manufacturer has its sprawling production line in Nnewi, a major trading community in Nigeria's southeast.
To produce ventilators, an automated equipment that pumps air in and out of the lungs of patients unable to breathe on their own, the company would have to install a separate production line or retrofit its existing factory to manufacture medical equipment rather than cars and trucks.
"It is very complex engineering, but if we are able to get the loan we have been pursuing, we can roll out production within 90 days," Mr Chukwuma said. "Then we can start supplying hundreds of ventilators to medical facilities where they might be needed across the country."
Isaac Okorafor, chief spokesperson for the CBN, and health minister Osagie Enihare, did not respond to requests for comments.
Innoson's decision to secure a loan from either the government or one of its bankers came more than a week after the company told PREMIUM TIMES it was ready to produce ventilators and other equipment.
Although some government officials at federal and state levels reached out to the company to explore potential areas of partnership, no concrete agreement had yet been reached, PREMIUM TIMES learnt from Innoson and government sources.
The world has been grappling with shortages of ventilators and reliable safety equipment for several weeks, with countries like the United States compelling private industries to manufacture medical equipment for bedridden citizens.
In Nigeria, however, authorities have only started taking it seriously.
Since its first case was reported on February 27, Nigeria has confirmed a total of 175 cases and two casualties as of Tuesday night. Yet, there are concerns that far more of the country's 200 million people had already been infected and the low confirmed cases came from under-testing.
Federal health officials claimed they have capacity to conduct 500 tests per day, yet only 2,000 have been tested as of March 30 after more than a month of daily testing activities.
As of Monday, senior administration officials, including the disease control chief and the health minister, dismissed concerns about ventilator shortages in Nigeria, saying the few that are available in the country may not even be put to use.
The controversial position of senior health officials came as Nigerians on social media began raising concerns about potential caseloads that could further overwhelm the country's long-moribund healthcare system. If exposed to COVID-19, elderly and other immunosuppressed patients may lose the ability to breathe on their own.
In an awkward tweet Tuesday night, the ministry of finance, which has been coordinating funding and logistics with health officials since the outbreak in January, sought urgent support for hundreds of ventilators from Tesla's CEO Elon Musk. The ministry later disowned the request, saying it was "unauthorised".