Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted on Wednesday night that he’s willing to have his companies, Tesla and SpaceX, make crucial ventilators to help patients with severe symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to take him up on that offer.
De Blasio tweeted at Musk on Thursday morning, saying New York City “will need thousands [of ventilators] over the next few weeks,” despite already acquiring them “as fast as we can.” The mayor said his team would reach out to Musk directly. “We could use your help!” he wrote. (After this article was published, Musk responded: “Sounds good, we will connect with your team to understand potential needs.)
“We could use your help!”
Musk had tweeted that he’d have his teams make ventilators “if there’s a shortage,” and by all accounts, there will be. The only reason it might not seem like there isn’t one currently in the US is that we haven’t yet exhausted the short supply. And while President Trump said he’s willing to invoke the wartime “Defense Production Act” on Wednesday to address the shortage, he tweeted later in the day that he’d only do so in a “worst case scenario.”
Musk isn’t the first to propose using his company’s manufacturing facilities to make critical equipment. Just yesterday, General Motors said CEO Mary Barra told the White House she was looking into making ventilators at her company’s factories. Ford followed suit soon after. Musk is alone among those peers in underplaying the pandemic, though. He called the “panic” over the coronavirus “dumb,” compared the lethality of COVID-19 to car crashes (which are not contagious), and finished his Twitter conversation about ventilators on Wednesday night by again saying he thinks the “panic will cause more harm than the virus, if that hasn’t happened already.”
As for how Musk might approach making ventilators, the entrepreneur said they are “not difficult” to make. He pointed to how Tesla makes “cars with sophisticated hvac systems,” and SpaceX “makes spacecraft with life support systems,” though he admitted it would take some time to spin up any real production effort. Where they would be built is another question; Tesla is currently locked in a back-and-forth with local authorities in the San Francisco Bay Area over whether the company should suspend production of electric cars amid a shelter-in-place order, and it could run into a similar issue at its Gigafactory in Nevada now that the state has issued a similar directive.
President Trump’s gutting of critical government offices, combined with his apparent refusal to take the threat of the novel coronavirus seriously in the early weeks, has left states and local governments overwhelmed in the fight against the pandemic. At the same time, Trump’s administration has leaned hard on the private sector to pick up the slack in ways that have repeatedly surprised those companies. He claimed Google was developing a nationwide screening website that will help people learn if and how they should get tested for COVID-19 and said retail companies would offer up parking lot space for testing sites — despite neither of those claims having been completely true before they were uttered aloud.
Still, companies are putting themselves into the mix. Amazon announced it will hire 100,000 workers worldwide and is bumping up its hourly pay to both help with a delivery crunch and provide jobs for people who are now out of work. Gaming company Razer has said it will help make masks, too.
Musk is no stranger to inserting himself into an international crisis. He famously spun up an effort at SpaceX in 2018 to create a submersible vessel to help rescue the soccer team trapped in a cave network in Thailand. If Musk really wants to help out this time around, it looks like he already has one taker in New York City. It almost certainly won’t be the last, either.
Update March 19th, 1:46PM ET: Added Elon Musk’s response to Bill de Blasio’s office.