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APMA says medical suppliers will be forced to share specs with auto industry amid pandemic

Greg Layson, Automotive News Canada
March 20, 2020

If medical equipment suppliers refuse to share the technical specifications of the equipment they make with the auto industry, “we will force them,” says the head of Canada’s autoparts makers association.

But the question is: How?

“You ask nicely, wait respectfully, get frustrated and ask the government to ask less nicely,” Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association President Flavio Volpe said. “And that’s on the record.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t address that issue Friday during a media conference in Ottawa on Friday.

However, Trudeau did say the federal government will provide support — he didn’t say whether it was financial or otherwise — to any Canadian manufacturer who wants to retool in an effort to make much needed medical equipment such as masks, face shields and ventilators.

Trudeau said the country’s healthcare system “really needs support.”

Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains said Canada has “a world-class industrial base.”

Without disclosing how much money is available, he said at a news conference Friday that it will come from the Strategic Innovation Fund, which will directly support companies and research institutions. Money and support is also available from the federal Innovation Superclusters.

“Funds will be deployed on an accelerated basis,” Bains said.

He also said the pace of the approval process will also quicken and products will get to market faster.

“We’re putting the full weight of the federal government behind this plan,” Bains said.

As Automotive News Canada was first to report, Volpe asked his members early in the week to heed his association’s own call to action to start making supplies that are in short supply.

The federal government on Thursday followed suit and issued its own call to action, asking Canadian manufacturers to help combat the outbreak.

“If you are a Canadian manufacturer or business that can assist Canada in meeting the need for medical supplies, your help is needed,” the government said.

Manufacturers qualify to help if they:

Manufacture in Canada and/or have ready access to necessary inputs through their supply chain;

Have equipment or facilities that can be rapidly re-tooled to meet medical needs, including for personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks and surgical gowns; sanitizers; wipes; ventilators; and other medical equipment and supplies and;

Have skilled workers who are able to respond and who could be available for work in the current circumstances.

When asked how fast Canadian companies could retool and start producing, Trudeau replied, “Soon.”

“We know Canadian companies are among the most innovative and agile in the world. we’re very confident we can work with them to respond to the need,” Trudeau said.

DIVERSE SUPPLY CHAIN

Volpe said given Canada’s diverse supply chain, it’s able to make anything from face shields to ventilators. But, he said the biggest hurdle in the process is getting and then meeting the specifications from the original manufacturers of the medical equipment.

“We’re either convince them or we’re going to force them [to give them to us].”

There are, of course, questions about how the auto industry or government could force medical equipment makers to give up their specifications.

SAFETY CONCERNS?

Converting auto plants and supply factories might not be easy or happen quickly, at least not in the United States.

Sandy Munro, CEO of Munro & Associates to Axios that manufacturing of medical devices requires sterile rooms with much higher standards than those required in a “clean room” at an automotive paint shop, he told the U.S. political website.

Canada has its own regulations. The Medical Devices Bureau of the Therapeutic Products Directorate (TPD) is the national authority that monitors and evaluates the safety, effectiveness and quality of diagnostic and therapeutic medical devices in Canada.

The TPD ensures the safety, effectiveness and quality of medical devices in Canada by a combination of pre-market review, post-approval surveillance and quality systems in the manufacturing process.

In Canada, certain devices must have a Medical Device Licence before they can be sold. To determine which devices need a licence, all medical devices have been categorized based on the risk associated with their use. This approach means that all medical devices are grouped into four classes, with Class I devices presenting the lowest potential risk (i.e. a thermometer) and Class IV devices presenting the greatest potential risk (i.e. pacemakers).

A volume ventilator, used in critical care, is a Class III medical device while ventilator tubing and support sets fall under Class II.

The Medical Devices Bureau wasn’t immediately available for comment.

When asked about which government health and safety regulations — if any — would be removed or relaxed in order to allow an auto supplier to make critical medical equipment, Volpe said the situation is moving too quickly to answer that question right now.

JUST ‘GET IT OUT’

“The principal is we’re just going to get it out. As long as it still follows public safety and health,” Volpe said. “There are suppliers … that do have clean rooms. And if we’re part of the solution, and we need clean rooms to be part of the solution, we’ll make clean rooms. End of story.

“The first part is to be able to secure the specifications, then commit to capacity.”

Health and safety and clean rooms will be dealt with after that.

Volpe said there might be a small number of suppliers in Canada that make medical equipment alongside auto parts, but he declined to name those private companies.

Volpe’s biggest concern is that countries begin implementing export controls in order to keep a tight grip on medical equipment.

The Financial Post on Thursday reported that more than 26 countries have imposed export controls on critical medical supplies.

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

SUPPLIERS RESPONSE

“We aren’t currently planning for this but would be willing to see how we could help if needed,” Magna International spokeswoman Tracy Fuerst said in an email to Automotive News Canada.

Linamar also is looking to help.

“Linamar is actively investigating the feasibility of manufacturing ventilators working with a variety of partners. We are hopeful that we can play a role in helping to deal with the consequences of this global pandemic.” Linamar CEO Linda Hasenfratz said in a statement.

Brian Bendig, president of Cavalier Tool and Manufacturing in Windsor, Ont., accepts the challenge and took to Twitter to let the government know.

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