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Canadian government shopping for high-demand N95 masks on the international market

With no domestic production of crucial N95 masks for health-care workers on the COVID-19 front lines, Canada’s federal government is bulk-buying tens of millions of them on the international market to meet short-term demand.

The Trudeau government’s announcement Tuesday that it will spend up to $2 billion to procure personal protective equipment — including more than 60 million N95 masks — comes weeks into a global pandemic and raises questions about Canada’s emergency preparedness. 

Health care workers have been rationing the protective N95 masks while they wait for stocks to be replenished. Because there are currently no domestic manufacturers of N95 masks, pressure put on the global supply by the coronavirus pandemic has left Canada in a precarious position.

Only medical masks such as those labelled N95, sometimes also called respirators, are designed and fitted to filter out the tiny aerosol particles that carry the novel coronavirus. Other masks, such as surgical masks, are looser fitting and made of material that may reduce only some aerosol particles.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said at a press conference Tuesday that the federal government is “aggressively buying in bulk from all available suppliers and distributors.” 

On Tuesday, Quebec Premier François Legault said protective equipment for hospitals, including masks, was just days away from running out.

11 days ago

The more than 60 million N95 masks the government has ordered are all coming from foreign suppliers. Anand said deliveries will start next week.

It was just 11 days ago the federal government put out a call to domestic businesses and manufacturers “to help deliver critical health supplies.” 

Normally, local health authorities in each province purchase their own protective gear, but given the global supply shortages in recent weeks, the provincial ministries and now the federal government have had to step in. 

On Friday, Health Canada told CBC News that the Public Health Agency of Canada was deploying N95 masks and other protective gear from the national emergency strategic stockpile. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said last week in a radio interview that the province was working with an automotive supply company named Woodbridge in Mississauga, Ont., on production of N95 masks, because a world-leading supplier, the multi-national corporation 3M, was swamped with international orders.

Not in Canada — 3M

According to St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M’s website, the company is currently producing 100 million N95 masks a month globally. Much of that production is in Aberdeen, S.D. Its subsidiary, 3M Canada, has several manufacturing plants in this country, but according to an online statement, the company does not manufacture N95 masks in any of its Canadian facilities. 

CBC News contacted 3M Canada president Penny Wise on Monday to ask whether the company would retool any of its Canadian factories to meet demand in Canada. Wise’s office refused to answer the question, saying instead that the company had doubled the amount of N95 masks brought into the country during the first three months of 2020.

Wise did not say how many masks 3M has imported to Canada over the past three months. 

N95 masks are designed to filter 95 per cent of airborne particles. (Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

The federal government announced Tuesday that it “was in the process of finalizing an agreement” with the Montreal-based protective equipment manufacturer Medicom to start N95 and surgical mask production in Canada. 

“We need a sustainable, stable supply of these products, and that means making them at home, and we are optimistic that they will be available in the coming weeks,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

Industry Minister Navdeep Bains said at the Tuesday press conference that the ability to produce the masks within Canada remains “a core objective of ours.”

Surgical masks only

But the proposed Medicom manufacturing site won’t be up and running for months. According to the company, neither the location nor the number of manufacturing facilities has been decided. It is aiming to start production in early summer. 

In the short term, Medicom has a separate agreement with the federal government to supply “tens of millions” of surgical masks only.

Medicom’s chief operating officer, Guillaume Laverdure, told CBC News there have been no discussions in the past with governments in Canada about domestic production of protective masks.

“Manufacturing locally is more expensive than importing from China. That’s a fact,” he said. “So, in times where provincial hospital budgets are tight, there is a natural tendency to go to the cheapest possible product.” 

Workers inspect newly made surgical masks at a factory in Hong Kong. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images)

Laverdure said the new paradigm is that governments are willing to pay a little more as long as they have access to products locally.

Health-care workers have been relying in part on corporate donations of personal protective gear to help bridge the supply gap.

The Canadian government has said several companies have donated personal protective and safety equipment and sanitizing supplies, including: Magna, General Motors, Toyota Canada, Ford, Linamar, Shell, Suncor, Alibaba Group and Home Depot

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