The parking lot hand-off that could mean 'millions of masks' for people fighting COVID-19

Woodbridge Foam Corporation usually makes headliners and trunk liners, but have started producing masks to help protect healthcare workers. Now McMaster has been tasked with evaluating the prototypes.

Prototypes could mean 'millions of masks between frontline workers and the virus'

Researchers at McMaster University have been tasked with evaluating prototype masks produced by Woodbridge Foam Corporation to take on COVID-19. (FlavioVolpe1/Twitter)

The two men had never met before and the Ziploc bag they exchanged in the parking lot of McMaster Innovation Park Saturday did not appear, at least at a glance, to be anything special.

But that plastic bag and its contents has the potential to play a critical role in protecting healthcare workers and other Canadians from COVID-19.

A closer inspection would have revealed the words "WOODBRIDGE FOAM MASK PROTOTYPES" scrawled on in its side in blue, ballpoint pen.

"John met me in the parking lot like we were doing some kind of clandestine deal. I handed him a bag of prototypes and he ran them into the building," said Flavio Volpe, president of Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association (APMA).

"That moment may be the moment that started us down the path of getting millions of masks between frontline workers and the virus and between regular human beings and each other when they're sick."

The John he's talking about is John Preston, associate dean of research and external relations with McMaster's faculty of engineering.

And inside the bag were the first attempts by Woodbridge Foam Corporation — which typically makes headliners and load floors, along with foam seating and other parts and materials for the automotive industry — at creating ASTM Level 2 or 3 masks.

"These are to protect healthcare workers from droplets that would be expelled," explained Preston.

With reports of healthcare workers rationing protective gear and other equipment amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Volpe has called on auto parts manufacturers to step up and find ways to help.

Woodbridge was one of the producers to answer the call.

They have experience manipulating fabrics and "thought 'It isn't "that much of a stretch to try to use some of those fabrics and go into the mask business," said Volpe.

For the past two weeks they've been working around the clock. So quickly in fact, the APMA president says they've outpaced accredited labs needed to give their new masks the seal of approval.

Volpe said he's been in contact with the province's health minister and minister of economic development. On Thursday he spoke with Premier Doug Ford and explained they believe they can make millions of masks each week, but can't get a lab to certify them for at least two or three weeks.

Ford said the government could be "flexible" in the interim if the APMA could find equivalent validation and a credible partner to carry out testing, according to Volpe. That's where McMaster comes in.

McMaster's 'sweet spot'

Preston said the university is looking for two things in a manufacturing partner — the ability to produce at a volume that will make a difference and a regulated environment that includes a controlled process that can incorporate their feedback on prototypes.

Now they're working with companies, different levels of government and other bureaucratic bodies to improve the masks and move the process forward.

"This is a natural role for us," he said. "This is our sweet spot."

The optimization of the design is coming along and, "in terms of the performance, it's looking quite good," he added.

Flavio Volpe
Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association, said the industry is ready to fight steel and aluminum tariffs in court if necessary. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

McMaster is preparing to receive a fresh, updated set of samples ready for further evaluation Monday.

Preston said COVID-19 has pushed the university into a situation where they're hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.

"There's a lot of us, across many organizations, that are running flat-out, hoping the solution we're working on is never required."

However, despite the difficult circumstances, there have been positives for McMaster too.

The university will also have some role when it comes to producing ventilators and researchers with the faculty of health sciences have been playing an important role too.

"This is completely unprecedented. There's never been this kind of putting aside of egos and willingness to stretch outside of people's comfort zones," said Preston.

"Our students have really been spectacular. They've really responded in a positive way. I'm very proud of that in what's really a horrible situation."

Volpe fully believes millions of masks will be needed to meet the needs of people in Canada. But even if they aren't, he has no doubts they'll be put to use somewhere.

"If the worst thing that happens is we make stuff that people in impoverished countries stay healthier, well we're all on the same spinning rock," he said, adding everyone has a part to play in fighting COVID-19.

"If you haven't asked yourself 'What more can I do?' We're going to fall short."