March 17, 2020

The federal government is in discussions with Canadian manufacturers on how they could step in to fill critical shortages of medical supplies needed to fight the coronavirus, including the possibility of switching over their production lines from goods such as auto parts.

The issue came up on Tuesday during a regular morning conference call between private-sector representatives and staff of the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

Ottawa’s discussions follow similar moves elsewhere, including in France, where conglomerate LVMH is producing hand sanitizer for hospitals on production lines that previously made Dior and Givenchy luxury perfumes. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has asked Ford, Honda, Rolls Royce and other manufacturers to make ventilators and other health-care equipment.

A key part of the fight against the coronavirus is to slow the rate of infections so that seriously ill patients do not overwhelm the capacity of the health-care system, including the number of available ventilators.

Canada already has shortages of personal protective equipment, including face masks. The World Health Organization said on Monday that global production of protective equipment and test kits needs to “seriously scale up” and that it is working with the private sector to increase output.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said his organization has been in discussions with officials at both the federal and provincial levels. “We’ve made an offer to say we’ve got capacity to make medical supplies all over [Ontario] here,” he said. “So for the public procurement of medical supplies, critical ones, everything from ventilators to masks, give us the specs, give us the volumes. And where we can accommodate, we absolutely will.”

A dozen companies are conducting “serious, quick due diligence” on whether they would be able to retool their production facilities, Mr. Volpe said, adding that they are waiting for specifications from the government on what is required. “The point is we’re all geared to scale. If we can accommodate the specs, we can make as many as people need very, very quickly.”

Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, an industry group that represents 2,500 manufacturers, said it is also waiting for specifics.

Mr. Volpe said that, besides the benefits to public health, retooling could help companies weather any slowdown in manufacturing in the coming months.

Innovation, Science and Economic Development said in a statement that it is working with private industry to address “emerging challenges,” saying that the government has allocated funds for the purchase of personal protective equipment and essential medical supplies.

Perrin Beatty, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, called the idea of retooling manufacturing facilities “social mobilization,” likening it to how the manufacturing sector quickly shifted from civilian to military production during the Second World War. He should know: His family’s former business, Beatty Brothers Ltd., moved from making household appliances to ammunition boxes and other goods for the military during the war.

While Ottawa decides what it needs, some smaller companies are moving on their own to help. On Friday, Dillon’s Small Batch Distiller, a producer of spirits such as rye whisky and gin, started making small bottles of hand sanitizer and distributing them for free.

“Everybody wanted it. It’s flown out the door,” said founder Geoff Dillon. All of that production went to fire departments, police stations and other essential services, he said.

By Wednesday morning, Mr. Dillon said, the distiller in Beamsville, Ont., 90 kilometres south of Toronto, will have produced 3,000 bottles of sanitizer – aloe gel mixed with 130 proof alcohol and some bitters. But it has run out of aloe. Now, it is shifting to producing 750 millilitre bottles of 130-proof alcohol that can be used for disinfectant (but is not suitable for drinking).

Demand is high, Mr. Dillon said. On Wednesday alone, the distiller will produce 1,000 of the 750 ml bottles to give away. The demand for it, he said, is “shocking.”

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