Hundreds of Elon Musk's Twitter followers welcomed on Thursday an offer by Tesla's chief executive to make ventilators for coronavirus sufferers "if," he said, there is a shortage, after the United States appealed for donations of respirator masks.

On Wednesday, GM and Ford said they had been in talks with the federal government about beginning production of medical equipment, including ventilator machines. Medical experts have said that the United States and other nations face an acute shortage of the machines to help the expected number of seriously ill patients. The World Health Organization said it was in talks with China and others to help ramp up supplies of health equipment.

"We will make ventilators if there is a shortage," Musk said on Twitter, responding to a fan's suggestion that the billionaire repurpose a factory for the task. The conditional aspect of his statement was in keeping with earlier tweets in which he had indicated some skepticism that the response to the coronavirus pandemic has been overblown, stating that the panic could cause more harm than the virus. And on Wednesday, Tesla agreed to reduce the number of active workers at its California vehicle factory, a county spokesman said, amid regional lockdowns to rein in the virus — after the sheriff's department warned that Tesla was not in fact an "essential" business allowed to stay open under the lockdown.

Musk's comment immediately drew hundreds of replies urging him to act.

"If, for whatever reason, you don't believe there currently is a shortage, by all estimates, there will be," said a social media user with the handle Internetchilla. "Please help."

The Trump administration on Tuesday urged U.S. construction companies to donate respirator masks to hospitals and healthcare providers fighting the virus, amid a nationwide shortage.

Companies such as Apple supplier Foxconn have refitted production lines to make masks and similar items after stores in many countries ran out and suppliers were overwhelmed by the spread of the virus.

An Italian start-up used a 3D printer to replicate respirator valves, saying it would hand them to hospitals for free. Italy is battling the world's worst outbreak outside China.

Last month, Chinese electric vehicle maker BYD said it was making 5 million masks and about 300,000 bottles of hand sanitizers a day.

Musk is not the first chief executive to offer help with medical supplies on Twitter, however.

SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son offered a million free virus tests this month. A day later, following criticism that he risked overwhelming medical facilities, he offered to donate a million free masks.

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