Beating COVID-19: what it takes to start producing medical supplies

April 2, 2020

Article originally published in The Hamilton Spectator

By Katie Heelis

Calls from provincial and federal governments across Canada came through loud and clear late last month. Governments at all levels and of all political stripes were pleading for domestic manufacturers to start producing medical supplies — hand sanitizer, N95 masks and gloves.

With a surge of COVID-19 cases in Canada and around the world, the desperation of our political officials was made clear through their pleas to industry as our stock of medical supplies runs dangerously low. Official stockpiles, stowed away for just such pandemics, have proven inadequate for a crisis that few anticipated would be quite so stark and vast in reality. It’s now critical to be innovative in how we develop products: international supply chains are compromised, and the pandemic shows no signs of letting up in the coming days or weeks.

The good news first: Canada benefits from having access to a highly educated and innovative workforce with a strong, high-tech manufacturing industry. We have the right blend of scientists and engineers to redesign systems and the skilled labourers to build the products we need. And this is already underway.

Many distilleries have shifted production lines from beer and spirits to hand sanitizer. Auto manufacturers are gearing up to produce ventilators and 3D printers are being used to print face shields for medical professionals on the front lines.

So, for companies ready to raise their hand to start producing medical supplies, what does it take?

First and foremost, you’ll need ingenuity. The knowledge of your skilled workforce and your access to the right supplies will determine how your operations can be remodelled.

The government is looking for medical-grade masks, gowns, hand sanitizer, gloves and other preventative material. Do you have or can you obtain any of the raw materials to produce these goods and the right production equipment to make it happen? Think small first, such as plastic bottles for hand sanitizer or Plexiglas for medical shields.

Then, you need determination. If you can access raw materials, but maybe not the production equipment, think about partnerships. Who are the manufacturing leaders in your community, your region, who could potentially use your supplies for their production?

What staff or labour supports do you need to start and maintain production? Will it be possible to retrain staff to shift from, say, producing car parts to medical parts? Who are the medical producers in your community who you could partner with to help train staff?

And don’t forget: What are the steps you need to take from a public health perspective to keep your staff and your facility safe? At a bare minimum, you’ll need to start with regular or intensive cleaning, equipment for staff, access to hand washing stations and hand sanitizer.

Now for the patience part. Health care is one of the most highly regulated sectors in the world. For good reason. The devices and tools we are talking about are used to keep us healthy and save lives.

Health Canada has done a tremendous job to move quickly to remove as much regulatory burden as possible during this critical time, but that does not mean anyone, anywhere can start offering medical supplies. There are still certain standards that must be met.

Most organizations looking to produce medical supplies will need two things: 1. A site licence (this gives your facility “permission” to produce medical supplies); and 2. A product licence (this gives your facility permission to produce a certain product like a mask or hand sanitizer).

To receive these permissions, manufacturers must work directly with Health Canada to ensure they are meeting necessary health and safety standards. Health Canada has created an expedited process for the approval of products that can help in response to COVID-19.

In an emergency situation like this one, fast is never fast enough. But after days of working with Health Canada, I can tell you their hard-working civil servants are working around the clock to connect with, advise and approve new productions in short order. They’ve taken a process that sometimes takes months and turned it into days.

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