TORONTO – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to rule out following U.S. President Donald Trump’s lead by invoking his nation's wartime Defense Procurement Act compelling manufacturers to begin making ventilators to combat COVID-19. For now, Ottawa has signed contracts or letters of intent with eight equipment makers to build devices for diagnosing, treating and preventing COVID-19 as part of its CA$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) plan to make protective personal equipment available to Canadians.

"The entire world is trying to get its hands on the equipment needed to fight this virus,” Trudeau said during a news conference. “I am incredibly proud of Canadian companies and manufacturers who are stepping up and saying we will help make the ventilators and masks and gowns we will need in the coming weeks.”

Time the real enemy

New federal procurement agreements have been signed with Toronto-based Thornhill Medical Inc., Quebec’s Medicom Inc. and Ottawa’s Spartan Bioscience Inc. to boost capacity – and in some instances retool their production lines – for the supply of portable ventilators, surgical masks and rapid testing kits. Thornhill Medical has promised to add 500 of its Moves Slc ventilators, typically used by the military, to Canada’s domestic supply.

“It is a compact, portable, self-contained device that provides all of the crucial functions available in a modern intensive care unit,” Thornhill Medical marketing consultant Tessa Mintz told BioWorld. “Normally it takes a matter of weeks, but during this unprecedented time, and with the support of our partners, we feel we can tighten our delivery times.”

This brings to eight the number of companies that have signed on to Ottawa’s industrial strategy for coping with COVID-19. Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said that as many as 16,000 firms have expressed interest in participating. The one catch, said David Perry, vice president and senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, may be time.

Perry told BioWorld that no matter how enthusiastic a company is, tooling up for something that it’s never made before doesn’t happen overnight. “You’ve got to reconfigure your facility, get the drawings and schematics and whatever intellectual property rights or government licences to access provisions needed so you’re not doing something illegally. All these things also have standardized testing to make sure they’re up to required specifications.”

What’s also needed, said Perry, is direction from the government about quantities. As many as 60 million N95 masks are expected to be delivered as part of the federal commitment to provide protective gear to health care workers.

Stopping short of wartime measures

Perry is less sanguine about the idea of wartime legislation to compel Canadian manufacturers to build COVID-19-proof ventilators, as the U.S. has done in the case of General Motors. “It would make sense in an American context, because they’re having a difficult time getting companies that have manufacturing capacity and expertise to step up to the plate,” said Perry.

“It’s not looking as though [invoking Canada’s Defense Procurement Act] is necessary, because the companies in Canada that ... have that capacity have already volunteered their production facilities.”

Of greater importance will be the centralized coordination of a national health care system divided up among 10 provinces and two territories, each responsible for allocating resources and “each competing for the same stockpile of resources,” said Perry. This part of the picture is less clear than the willingness and capacity of companies to lend a hand.

When the prime minister said March 19 that he’d consider ordering manufacturers to retool for the manufacture of N95 masks, 75% of the required 7 million masks were available in Canada. How much of the remaining masks have been added to the supply? “My sense is not very much,” said Perry.” I’ve not really seen any specificity on that.

“Something like 80%-90% of the civil service in Ottawa is working from home. That’s a massive shift. It’s kind of hard to figure out exactly what kind of productive workforce and capacity you need from your kitchen or your couch.”