‘If we can get the drawings and the technical guidance, we’re ready and willing to help’

Naomi Powell, Emily Jackson, Financial Post
March 19, 2020

Canadian automotive industry leaders and government officials are attempting to strike commercial agreements with medical device companies to redeploy their idled production lines to make ventilators, masks and other vital equipment to treat people affected by the coronavirus.

On Thursday, autoparts manufacturers Martinrea International Inc. and Linamar Corp., General Motors Canada and Ontario’s health minister all confirmed efforts to investigate the possibility of changing gears to build medical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously, our business isn’t producing ventilators, but we have a lot of assembly capacity and we know how to make things,” said Rob Wildeboer, executive chairman of Martinrea International. “If we can get the drawings and the technical guidance, we’re ready and willing to help.”

In preparation for “tremendous pressures” on the health-care system, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province just acquired 300 additional ventilators, but may need more to boost response capacity.

“We are working with autoparts manufacturers, for example, to see if they can retool their equipment in order to produce more ventilators,” she said.

Linamar, which has already started to diversify into medical equipment, is “actively investigating the feasibility of manufacturing ventilators working with a variety of partners,” chief executive Linda Hasenfratz said in a statement.

CEO Linda Hasenfratz says Linamar is “actively investigating the feasibility of manufacturing ventilators working with a variety of partners.” Tyler Anderson / National Post

Meanwhile, General Motors Canada is doing an internal study to evaluate how it can help during the crisis, which could include supporting the production of medical equipment, spokesperson Jennifer Wright said in a statement.

“It is all currently under evaluation,” she said.

Magna International Inc., Canada’s largest autoparts maker, is not currently planning to make ventilators or masks, but would be willing to see how it could help if needed, spokeswoman Tracy Fuerst said in an email.

The federal government is working to manage existing inventories of ventilators and masks and secure more if necessary to cope with potential surges in COVID-19 patients.

“I have had personal conversations with ministers about shortages they may be facing in a couple of days and we’ve been able to resolve those very quickly,” Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu said. “We’re continuing that work to determine what provinces need immediately, what they anticipate their long-term needs are going to be, and then in terms of how we can prepare at the federal level for things that we’re not even necessarily anticipating.”

Talks about whether factories can be retooled to make vital health-care equipment were underway even before automakers on both sides of the Atlantic began shutting down factories in response to the rapidly escalating coronavirus crisis. On Wednesday, the Big Three Detroit automakers became the latest to temporarily suspend production.

“There’s a lot of skills in our industry and a lot of willingness to help,” said Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association. “We can make most of these things here, and where we can help, we absolutely will.”

So far, the key challenge has been establishing agreements with medical companies that would allow devices to be produced at a much larger scale amid a surge in global demand.

Though 16 Canadian autoparts companies have agreed to do what they can to build the equipment, they won’t know what’s required until they see the engineering specifications and other product information, much of which is protected by intellectual property laws, Volpe said.

Current discussions include whether autoparts companies can be licensed to produce the equipment, alongside a purchasing commitment from the Canadian government.

But Canada isn’t the only country that needs help.

“If this was a Canada-only crisis, we could solve it in short order,” Volpe said. “But we’re calling the same companies as the U.S. is calling, as Germany is calling. The stuff we need has never been in this kind of demand.”

More than 26 countries have imposed export controls on crucial medical supplies and are rushing to secure more inventory as they prepare to cope with potential surges in patients.

The World Health Organization has said there’s a need to ramp up production of protective gear and tests for the virus.

Protective clothing, gloves, ventilators and face masks will all be needed as the coronavirus progresses through populations. John Moore/Getty Images

Manufacturers in France and elsewhere have been shifting operations to produce items such as hand sanitizers, masks and other protective gear. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged automakers to pull together as they did during the Second World War, saying they “cannot make too many” ventilators.

North America’s auto sector has a history of shifting production to help the government. For example, Canada’s auto plants produced more than 800,000 military vehicles to equip Commonwealth armies during the Second World War, according to a 2005 report on the industrial war effort for the Business Council of Canada.

But a shift to produce medical equipment to fight COVID-19 is much less ambitious than the scale of change during the two world wars, University of Calgary history professor John Ferris said in an email.

“How quickly and well this can happen depends on the experience of the firm and workforce, and the complexity of the kit. This is a much easier and more normal thing than the transition from a civilian to a war economy,” he said. “But because we envisage ourselves at war with COVID-19, we look around for military parallels that are not particularly useful.”

Ventilators — which use a tube to mechanically exchange air in the lungs — are considered crucial to fighting severe cases of the coronavirus.

Though the exact number of ventilators in Canada is uncertain, a 2015 study found that there were 4,982 across 286 hospitals. Canada also has a federal stockpile of equipment that it has been distributing as requested to the provinces, Hajdu said.

It’s not clear who Canada buys its ventilators from, but manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe have reported longer production times given the rush of global orders. Swiss manufacturer Hamilton Medical said it typically makes 220 ventilators a week, but has increased output by 50 per cent, although delivery times are longer than normal.

How much more equipment Canada will require depends on how the pandemic unfolds and whether efforts to slow its spread through social distancing, handwashing and other techniques are successful.

“I think trying to ask for a specific number is a little bit misleading for Canadians in the sense that so much depends on a) our efforts to flatten the curve, and b) what happens when the virus hits various populations,” Hajdu said. “We have some indication from science, but, of course, the science is evolving in terms of the severity of expression in different populations.”

Theresa Tam, chief public health officer, expects the government will need to procure more masks for health-care workers. About seven million masks are needed in the short term and the government’s suppliers can currently only cover 75 per cent of that, she said.

The industry ministry is also working to address potential supply challenges, according to a statement from Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains.

“The COVID-19 Response Fund supports the purchase of personal protective equipment and essential medical supplies, and our government is working diligently to ensure that the supply of these products meets needs and demand,” he said. “We stand ready to take further action to support the provinces and territories, our frontline health workers and Canadians.”

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