Cannabis labs eager to aid with COVID-19 testing with 10,000 backlog in Ontario

The CEO of a state-of-the-art cannabis analytical testing facility in Woodbridge says he's been trying to get the government's attention to offer his company's labs up for COVID-19 testing. On Thursday, Health Canada reached out.

Health Canada is working to identify lab capacity to assist with supporting COVID-19 testing

High North is a cannabis analytical facility located just outside of Toronto. Its CEO, John Slaughter, says the 16,000-square-foot space can easily be re-tooled to assist with COVID-19 testing. (Submitted by High North)

When John Slaughter finished construction on his 16,000-square-foot cannabis analytical testing facility last year, he never could have predicted it would potentially serve a totally new purpose in the face of a global pandemic.

"It's a gorgeous facility that can scale up and do anything needed in the laboratory industry," said Slaughter, the CEO of High North.

Usually, the company's laboratories test cannabis for qualities like potency and pesticides. Now, as the provincial and federal governments call on businesses and manufacturers to help with the COVID-19 pandemic, Slaughter has been advocating for the new cannabis sector to be considered.

Slaughter says his facilities are brand new, tests are processed digitally and standards are high.

"The level that [Health Canada] sets the standard to is if an immunocompromised cancer patient is going to use this product. That's the level of cleanliness that needs to happen," he said.

When CBC Toronto spoke with Slaughter Thursday, he said he was having a tough time reaching the right people to let the government know his space was available.

Health Canada didn't respond to CBC Toronto's specific questions about how companies can offer their services. Then on Thursday evening, all cannabis licence holders — including Slaughter — received an email from Health Canada saying it was "working to identify lab capacity that might be available across the country in various sectors, including at licensed cannabis production sites, to assist with supporting COVID-19 testing."

The email goes on to say that companies with lab facilities interested in assisting can notify Health Canada by email. 

Ontario has a backlog on testing. Over 10,000 Ontarians who have been tested for COVID-19 are waiting for their results.

Slaughter says his labs could potentially process up to 1,200 tests per day with an investment in some additional equipment.

"These are world class facilities that need one tweak, they're looking for COVID."

Cannabis companies step up

George Smitherman, president and CEO of the Cannabis Council of Canada says many marijuana producers have already been responding at a local level.

As a former minister of health and long-term care, George Smitherman says he's happy to help cannabis producers connect with the right players to offer their assistance during the pandemic. (Submitted by George Smitherman)

"This is a start up sector, these are all new businesses, not that many are particularly profitable," he said.

"So it's been heartwarming to see even with some of the struggles these companies are facing, they were able to put the need of community and public health right out there." 

Cannabis producer Aurora has donated N95 masks to Alberta Health Services, New Brunswick's Organigram donated ethanol for the production of hand santizer, while both Quebec's HEXO and Ontario's CANOPY donated personal protective equipment to their local emergency services.

As a former minister of health and long-term care, Smitherman says he's happy to help cannabis companies navigate reaching the right people within the government, but he also recommends reaching out directly to nearby hospitals.

"If you have resources locally, reach out to people in the healthcare sector," he said.

Aurora donated 200 N95 masks to Alberta Health and is working with the government to find more ways it can help. (Submitted by Aurora Cannabis)

Smitherman says he's going to populate a list of capabilities within the broader cannabis space and have it ready to present to officials.

Meanwhile, Ontario has launched a website calling on businesses and workers to submit how they can help the province meet the challenges COVID-19 presents.

The email cannabis licence holders received from Health Canada is welcome news for Slaughter — who says his team has already been preparing to switch gears over the last two weeks, and they're eager to move to the next step.

"We've got a global pandemic, let's deal with this, let's help," he said.


Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.


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