What exactly is a ventilator - and how vital are they in treating COVID-19?

U.S. Army Specialist Fredrick Spencer assembles a T1 Hamilton ventilator in a mobile lab unit in the Javits New York Medical Station intensive care unit bay monitoring coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients in New York City, U.S. Apri 4, 2020. Picture taken April 4, 2020.  U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Barry Riley/Handout via REUTERS.  THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC24ZF9NK4WZ

A US Army Specialist assembles a T1 Hamilton ventilator in New York. Image: US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Barry Riley/Handout via REUTERS

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on COVID-19?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how COVID-19 is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


  • Ventilators are at the top of the news agenda as the coronavirus pandemic grips the world.
  • They're machines that help patients breathe, and can aid recovery from COVID-19.
  • In New York, ventilators are being shared to combat shortages.
  • Engineers are racing to find faster and cheaper ways to produce more.

During the coronavirus pandemic, ventilators have become a topic of heated debate. There aren’t enough, they aren’t where they need to be, people are having to share, some people are trying to make their own, and the world’s best engineers are working out how to scale up production.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Ventilators are machines that help patients who can’t breathe on their own. They blow air – and sometimes air with extra oxygen – down the airways and into the lungs. Some also help patients expel air.

coronavirus fears epidemic pandemic disease infection contamination sanitation spread virus health care italy quarantine home isolation social distancing
Ventilators blow oxygenated air into the lungs. Image: British Lung Foundation

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness and a dry cough. While around 80% of people who get it recover without special treatment, around 1 in 6 become seriously ill, developing breathing difficulties, according to the World Health Organization.

Have you read?

That’s where ventilators come in, assisting the lungs while the body fights off the infection and – hopefully – recovers. About 30% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are likely to require mechanical ventilation, according to a study by Imperial College London.

Not enough to go round

With the COVID-19 pandemic advancing so fast, many countries are facing shortages of ventilators, forcing doctors on the frontline to make difficult choices about who gets them and who doesn’t.

Patients are sharing ventilators in one New York hospital, according to the New York Times, a tactic that’s been used before in crisis situations, including during Italy’s coronavirus outbreak and in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting.

In many countries, companies and governments are working together to make more ventilators, and fast. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has asked more than 60 manufacturing businesses to help step up production of medical equipment, including ventilators.


But ventilators aren't a panacea. Inserting a breathing tube into airways can raise the risk of lung infection. Breathing tubes can also make it hard to cough, which is one way the body clears out irritants.

The message from the World Health Organization remains the same: maintain social distancing, stay at least one metre away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing, and wash your hands frequently.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
COVID-19Global Health
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Winding down COVAX – lessons learnt from delivering 2 billion COVID-19 vaccinations to lower-income countries

Charlotte Edmond

January 8, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum