Canada

As imports hit roadblock, when can Canada make its own N95 masks?

Last December, as she watched the last pickup truck roll off the line at the GM assembly plant in Oshawa, Rebecca Keetch never thought that she — or any of the 2,600 workers laid off that day — would be back on the job any time soon.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived only months later, it exposed Canada’s lack of local manufacturing for badly needed medical supplies.

The federal government has tried to import as much personal protective equipment as possible from abroad — but of the 11.8 million N95 respirator masks that have arrived in Canada, fewer than two million have passed quality control.

All of a sudden, Oshawa, with its infrastructure and expertise, looks more like an untapped resource than an abandoned wasteland.

“I was hopeful that there would be conversion and new jobs coming into the plant. But I certainly didn’t expect that they would be converting to masks,” Keetch said.

Any day now, the first non-medical face mask will roll off the new line at the Oshawa plant, which has recalled 60 workers to produce a million face masks a month for Public Health Canada.

GM has joined manufacturers from coast to coast in retooling to make hand sanitizer, face shields, surgical gowns and scrubs.

But no one is making the coveted N95, which offers superior protection from viruses.

Workers produce N95-style filtering facepiece respirators at the General Motors manufacturing facility in Warren, Michigan.

The N95 is a classification of protective mask that filters out at least 95 per cent of airborne particles. While health-care professionals say N95s are not appropriate for all patient encounters, they remain essential for certain high-risk procedures — and shortages have been reported in hospitals and long-term-care homes across the province.

Despite the best efforts of the federal and provincial governments to procure N95 masks from abroad, actually getting them into the hands of health-care workers has proven to be a challenge.

The federal government placed orders for 145 million N95 respirator masks in April, but only 11.8 million have been delivered. Of those, 9.8 million masks were rejected for hospital use because they didn’t meet Health Canada standards.

This means that since U.S. President Donald Trump made an exception to the N95 export ban for Canada, and the first shipment of 500,000 respirators from the U.S. arrived on April 7, Canada has received fewer than 1.5 million additional N95s that met quality standards.

That trickle of imports underlines the importance of producing N95s domestically, though retooling, establishing supply chains and getting production up and running will not be easy — or quick.

“We are exploring various avenues to provide secure domestic supplies of personal protective equipment to Canadian workers, including masks,” said federal Ministry of Innovation spokesperson Alexander Jagric. “This includes building domestic capacity for millions of N95 masks each year.”

The government is placing much of its hope on Montreal medical manufacturer Medicom. With plants in China, Taiwan, the U.S. and France, the company was caught off guard when early in the pandemic each of those countries banned the export of medical equipment.

In April, the Quebec government pledged $4 million to accelerate the establishment of a new Medicom manufacturing plant in Montreal, slated to be up and running by July. On Friday, the federal government finalized a long-term contract for 20 million N95s per year to be made at the plant for the next decade.

“In light of recent product quality concerns from other suppliers around the world,” the company said in a press release, “the Medicom team is proud to be providing Canadian health-care professionals with personal protective equipment that consistently meets or exceeds industry standards.”

In an interview with the Star in March, company president Guillaume Laverdure spoke about the difficulty of establishing a production facility from scratch, saying massive supplies of fabric and specialized machinery needed to be secured.

“These are technical products with huge investments, huge manufacturing lines that you can’t turn around overnight,” he said. “These are months and months of capacity investment.”

“We understand manufacturing locally may not be the cheapest option. There is always a cheaper option somewhere. But there is a price to pay to have guaranteed local supply,” Laverdure said.

Medicom’s effort to set up a new production line by July is unprecedented by industry standards, but it still leaves a gap in supply until then.

This is why Keetch and her colleagues at Green Jobs Oshawa — a group calling for shuttered auto plants to be repurposed for environmentally friendly manufacturing — are asking GM to start producing N95 masks in Oshawa.

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“There has been a collapse of nearly all global supply chains,” Keetch said. “To ensure an adequate supply of N95 masks, we must start manufacturing them immediately.”

Production of non-medical face masks in Oshawa got off the ground in little more than a month, and GM is prototyping the N95 at a similarly revived plant in Warren, Mich.

A worker at the General Motors facility in Warren, Michigan begins final preparation for manufacturing Level 1 face masks. Any day now, the first non-medical face mask will roll off the new line at the Oshawa plant, which has recalled 60 workers to produce a million face masks a month for Public Health Canada.

The company is calling them “N95-style filtering facepiece respirators,” because they haven’t been certified yet, but engineers working on the line hope to have it up and running soon.

Keetch and her colleagues want to see the N95 line brought to Oshawa.

“They eliminated the jobs of 5,000 highly skilled assembly and supplier workers. Thousands of those workers are available and would be eager to manufacture N95 masks and other urgently needed (personal protective equipment) for front-line Canadian workers,” said Keetch.

“There are lives that are being put at risk in Ontario as a result of not having PPE, and we actually have the ability to make it in Oshawa.”

In an interview, GM Canada vice-president David Paterson said the company was lucky to be able to use existing suppliers to source the quantities of fabric needed to get production up and running so quickly.

“We’re making the regular masks which make up the highest demand,” he said. “These are the types of masks we need to get back to work and on the street doing the things we want to do.”

The level 1 face mask being produced in Oshawa doesn’t require the same Health Canada certifications as an N95, he said, and estimates show that in the coming year, 95 per cent of demand will be for these basic masks rather than N95s.

“We have offered at no profit to make a volume of masks to meet an enormous need in Canada,” he said, adding that he was “befuddled” by the demand to make N95s.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” he said. “There are others who can make N95s.”

In Western Canada, medical supply manufacturer Novo Textiles last month converted from making hospital pillows to face masks and hopes soon to be churning out N95s.

CEO Jason Zanatta responded to the federal government’s call for local businesses to help, bought a two-tonne surgical-mask-making machine in China and had it shipped to his facility in Coquitlam, B.C.

He’s currently producing 100,000 face masks a day, and he’s put a deposit down on a second machine to make N95s. If all goes according to plan, he hopes to have production up and running next month for 100,000 N95s daily.

Zanatta’s advantage over Medicom and GM? Since his facility already has a licence to produce medical-grade textiles, he doesn’t need to go through the same strict certification that new facilities do.

“#MadeinCanada is our best solution to protect against this. Too long have we taken the easy route of outsourcing everything to #China. That ends now,” Zanatta tweeted on April 30.

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