Politics

Ottawa unveils plan to harness industry to ramp up production of COVID-19 medical gear

The federal government unveiled on Friday a plan to harness the power of industry in the fight against COVID-19 that will see companies ramp up production of medical supplies to cope with the rapidly increasing number of cases.

PM says he's confident that Canadian companies will be able to quickly meet the demand

A hospital worker wearing a face shield and mask is seen at a COVID-19 assessment centre for staff at Lions Gate Hospital, in North Vancouver, on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The federal government today unveiled a plan to harness the power of industry in the fight against COVID-19 — one that will see companies ramp up production of medical supplies to cope with the rapidly increasing number of cases.

The plan will provide monetary support to manufacturers that can retool their assembly lines to make ventilators, masks and other personal protective gear, and will help those already making such products to quickly scale up manufacturing capacity.

"Canada is home to some of the best innovators in the world and, with this new initiative, we will harness their talent and know-how to get through these challenging times," Trudeau said outside his Rideau Cottage home on Friday, where he remains in self-isolation.

There are about 240,000 cases of COVID-19 around the world right now, with more cases and related deaths being confirmed daily. The ongoing rise in cases has left countries scrambling to purchase medical equipment and supplies.

Ottawa has been working with provinces and territories, which deliver health care, to determine where gaps exist in the system and to try to fill them in anticipation of a surge of hospitalizations that could strain the medical system's ability to cope.

Trudeau said the association representing auto parts manufacturers has been in talks with the government about shifting production to medical supplies.

Industrial policy being refocused

Industry Minister Navdeep Bains said the country's entire industrial policy will be refocused to prioritize the fight against COVID-19.

That means major funds meant to help companies innovate, including the Strategic Innovation Fund, and the country's research institutions, will help companies of all sizes accelerate research and development of products and services that could be useful as more Canadians become infected.

To get money out the door quickly, Bains said the government is providing wider flexibility for spending to tackle COVID-19, shorter application forms and faster approvals to increase the domestic supply of equipment.

"Our objective is to increase domestic supply so that we have Canadian solutions ready to protect Canadians," Bains said. "We're putting the full weight of the government behind this plan."

Federal spending programs are being redirected to what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likened to a war-time effort, with stripped down applications and fast-tracked approvals. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Last week, the federal government released a request on its Buy and Sell website asking companies to identify what goods they manufacture that might be of use to the government as it combats COVID-19, and what quantities they currently have in stock.

The government has received over 5,800 submissions so far, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said.

Public Services and Procurement Canada has been coordinating the purchase of goods and services on behalf of the Public Health Agency of Canada, Anand said, and has recently purchased a wide range of protective equipment and supplies, including gloves, masks, lab coats, hand sanitizers and ventilators.

"Our goal is to be over-prepared. We are planning for the future by considering both current and future needs as much as possible," she said.

She added the government has so far secured 11.3 million N95 masks, a number that is beyond the 7.3 million the provinces, territories and other health organizations have asked for at this point.

Bains said the government has signed three letters of intent: with Montreal-based Medicom, to produce N95 masks; with Spartan, an Ottawa company that will develop a portable diagnostic device to provide rapid test results for COVID-19; and with Thornhill Medical, which will scale up production of ventilators.

In a joint statement, three Conservative critics said the federal government's announcement is a step in the right direction.

"Conservatives support measures to help increase access to critical resources and supplies for Canadians and especially for our health care professionals during this difficult time," the statement said.

The statement said Conservatives want the government to be transparent about current shortages, along with future needs and the timeline for meeting them.

Watch: Bains and Anand say they are trying to over-prepare for the demand for medical supplies

Industry minister Navdeep Bains and Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand say they are trying to over-prepare for the demand for medical supplies to cope with the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases. 1:38

Flattening the curve buys time for research and development: Tam

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has said there has been no specific request for ventilators from provinces yet, but the federal government is trying to plan ahead as the number of cases surges.

Tam said an order has been placed for 550 ventilators as a precautionary measure.

On Friday, Tam said one of the key motivations behind the strategy to flatten the epidemic curve — to slow the rate of new infections to keep the health care system from being overwhelmed — is to buy time for research and innovation to occur.

"We urgently need diagnostics, critical health supplies, treatments and vaccines if we are to have the best chance at saving lives and bringing this epidemic to an end," Tam said.

Tam said the first clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine started this week, and that a number of potential treatments are being tested.

The federal count of confirmed cases in Canada is now above 900, with 12 deaths. Over 66,000 people have been tested, Tam said.

Watch: Dr. Tam says social distancing helps 'buy time for research and innovation'

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says social distancing measures not only help flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases, but also buys time for research and innovation to happen.  1:09

With files from the Canadian Press

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