First Ontario-made medical masks ready for use, says premier

Ontario-made medical masks are rolling off the line at a GTA auto parts manufacturer thanks in part to engineers at McMaster University and Premier Doug Ford was on hand Tuesday to pick up the first load.

'These masks will be made here in the millions,' said Doug Ford

Ontario Premier Doug Ford loads ASTM Level 3 masks made by The Woodbridge Group in Woodbridge, Ont. on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Ontario-made medical masks are rolling off the line at a GTA auto parts manufacturer thanks in part to engineers at McMaster University. 

The ASTM Level 3 masks made by The Woodbridge Group and INOAC corp. were tested by teams at the university to tweak design and performance.

On Tuesday morning Premier Doug Ford was on hand in Woodbridge, Ont. to personally pick up the first load of 1,000.

"These masks will be made here in the millions," he said during a media update later in the day.

"This is what the workshop of Canada looks like. Once we get Ontario's manufacturing powerhouse going it's a machine that can't be stopped."

The masks still need to be certified before they can be used by all frontline healthcare workers whose supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) is dwindling. But the premier's office says Health Canada has approved Woodbridge's plans to start production.

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Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association (APMA) previously told CBC that Woodbridge, which typically makes headliners and load floors, along with foam seating and other materials for the automotive industry, worked to re-tool its production lines after he called for the industry to step up in the fight against COVID-19.

Volpe hand-delivered the first mask prototypes to John Preston, associate dean of research and external relations with McMaster's faculty of engineering, in a Ziploc bag just 11 days ago.

"We've been working on this around the clock," Volpe wrote on Twitter, adding the efforts of McMaster were critical in making production possible. "The reinforcements are arriving!"

Preston echoed his enthusiasm.

"Fabulous to see this happening!" he tweeted. "Special thanks ... to [Volpe and the APMA] for leadership, inspiration and pulling people together."

The university also celebrated the first batch of masks.

"Bravo," cheered the McMaster Twitter account, congratulating its faculty of engineering and Woodbridge.

In a statement released Wednesday the university said Alison Fox-Robichaud, a professor and director of medical education at Hamilton Health Sciences, helped test the masks for breathability and comfort.

"As the worldwide demand for face masks increases, it is essential that the masks provided to health professionals and others at highest risk are of the highest standard," she said.

Ravi Selvaganapathy, a McMaster professor and Canada Research Chair in Biomicrofluidics, also helped by evaluating filtration.

"This is a great opportunity to help in a time of crisis," he stated in the release. "We are so happy to have a chance to play a part in relieving the shortage of masks."

1 million masks a week

The masks, which are breathable and resistant to fluids, will be produced at Woodbridge's factories in the Vaughan area and Kitchener.

While they're a classification just below the sought-after N95 respirators, the masks can be used by healthcare workers right away in a general clinical setting, explained company spokesperson Cynthia Emili in an email to CBC.

Woodbridge has only just started production, but Emili said once the company is running it expects to crank out one million masks each week for the next 15 weeks.

The masks are based on an existing Japanese design, but made out of local components.

"We worked quickly with McMaster University to expedite testing and prototype design," Emili added.

Engineering researcher Rakesh Sahu tries on a Woodbridge INOAC mask inside a lab in the John Hodgins Engineering building at McMaster University. (Jin Lee/McMaster University)

The company is now seeking certification from the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, according to the premier's office.

Ford has repeatedly spoken out about the fact Ontario needs to produce its own PPE so the province won't have to rely on foreign companies during future crises.

On Tuesday he said the Woodbridge masks represent the beginning of Ontario moving toward that independence.

"We need to look after ourselves. We need to be self-sufficient," the premier explained. "We have the ability to make anything here in Ontario."