Politics

Federal government finalizing plan to boost production of pandemic supplies

The federal government is finalizing a plan to boost production of ventilators and other medical equipment to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prime minister expected to make announcement Friday

A hospital worker wears a mask during Toronto's SARS outbreak at North York General Hospital, on May 29, 2003. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

The federal government is finalizing a plan to boost production of ventilators and other medical equipment to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior government sources tell CBC News they're hoping to work with existing manufacturers — especially of gloves, masks and ventilators — on a supply chain that's resistant to disruption.

An announcement is expected from the prime minister on Friday, which will also encourage other industries to retool their production lines to make those products.

In addition, sources say, almost every program within the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development will be "refocused" on fighting the virus. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly. 

Major federal programs — such as the Strategic Innovation Fund, a pool of money set aside by Ottawa in 2017 to "spur innovation for a better Canada"; and the $950-million Innovation Superclusters Initiative — will be "tasked to be part of the solution," one source said.

WATCH | PM says military procurement could help produce medical equipment:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not rule anything out when it comes to ensuring Canadians have access to enough medical equipment, including using military procurement as a possible option. 0:47

The National Research Council of Canada, the country's primary research and development organization, will also be part of the response.

The goal, the source said, is "to fight COVID and help come up with a cure."

Ventilators in particular, could spell the difference between life and death for many patients with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus which can damage the lungs.

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has said that while there is no current shortage of ventilators, federal officials are trying to prevent one by managing existing inventories and securing more of the machines — preparing for the possibility that the COVID-19 caseload could start overwhelming hospitals.

In a conference call with more than 300 Canadian business leaders on Thursday afternoon, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains said he is looking at "how we use our current industrial capacity to … build some of those very essential pieces of equipment, from ventilators, to gloves, to gowns, to masks."

Bains said he is "finalizing some of these details" with cabinet to fast-track procurement.

"Those are going to be critical for frontline health workers and how we deal with this crisis," he said on the call.

The World Health Organization warned last week of global shortages and price-gouging on ventilators and personal protective equipment, and urged companies and governments to increase production by 40 per cent.

Canada's automakers and aerospace manufacturers have recently been in talks with federal officials about stepping in to fill critical shortages of medical supplies.

Both the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association and Aerospace Industries Association of Canada said they have spoken to officials from Ottawa.

Meanwhile, high-end parka maker Canada Goose said it's in discussions about making medical gowns. Its retail stores and in-house production facilities are closed until at least March 31.

While working with companies already producing medical supplies is the preferred option, the sources say everything is "on the table."

But getting non-medical companies to produce unfamiliar, emergency medical equipment is no simple task. They face significant hurdles before they could build a complex piece of equipment like a ventilator, while other products need to be manufactured in a sterile environment.

It's not clear how long it would take for companies to reinvent themselves. Auto industry insiders say, for example, the process could take months for car companies.

In the United States, auto giants General Motors and Ford said they have been chatting with the Trump administration about making ventilators.

On Thursday, the prime minister said Canada might also use its military procurement policy to get medical equipment.

"We are considering using any measures necessary," Justin Trudeau said at a news conference outside his home. "We will, of course, look at military procurement as a solution as well."

With files from Vassy Kapelos, Rosemary Barton, David Cochrane

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