Coronavirus: Canadian company working with Ottawa to boost ventilator production

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A Toronto, Ont., company says it is ready to start making ventilators in a bid to meet expected demand in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Thornhill Medical is a company that manufactures ventilators — specifically a type that is compact, self-contained and portable, called the MOVES SLC. 

The company, which has signed a letter of intent with the federal government, says the device can provide all the crucial functions of a modern intensive care unit, on battery power.

President and CEO Lesley Gouldie said the device was first developed in partnership with the U.S. Marines and has been deployed by them as well as by other militaries in the field.

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There are around 200 of them out there, she added.

MOVES SLC is a compact, portable, self-contained device made by Thornhill Medical that provides all of the crucial functions available in a modern intensive care unit and integrates the functions of a ventilator, generating its own oxygen from the air. Thornhill Medical

But now, with the pandemic putting Canada’s ventilator supply in the spotlight, Thornhill Medical can be one of the companies that ramp up manufacturing to meet demand. 

Ventilators are medical devices that help people experiencing difficulty breathing to receive oxygen. Shortages of the devices are one of the key factors in Italy’s struggle to treat COVID-19 patients.

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Italy is currently the hardest-hit country in Europe and is trying to procure more ventilators. Bracing for the same kind of shortage, Britain has asked auto manufacturers to pivot to making ventilators.

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Canada has around 5,000 ventilators, according to remarks made by deputy chief public health officer Howard Njoo on Saturday. 

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As of March 22, there had been at least 20 deaths in Canada, with 1,388 confirmed cases.

We have tested over 92,000 people across the provinces and territories,” Njoo told reporters on Sunday. “That’s over 54,000 additional people tested across Canada over the past five days.”

A March 20 statement from the Prime Minister’s Office outlines the federal government’s plan to mobilize Canadian businesses in response to COVID-19.

Thornhill Medical is described by the PMO as a company that is “working to supply Canada’s need for” ventilators and has signed a letter of intent with the government.

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The MOVES SLC device is capable of treating patients in places other than an ICU room.

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“The patient can be attached to the ventilator on a bed and be treated in any environment so that you’re not restricted to an ICU hospital room,” Gouldie said.

“So it gives the caregivers and care providers maximum flexibility in terms of managing the patients and not being limited by being attached to oxygen at a walled source.”

She said the company is in conversations with the federal government in getting the “logistics lined up.”

“We need to understand what the demand is because that actually drives the operational,” she told Global News on Sunday.

“We’re in conversation with the federal government and the Ontario government and we need to understand what the full picture is before we can actually have a fully operational plan,” she said.

“We’re working as we speak.”

With under 100 employees currently, the company is able to ramp up manufacturing via its own capacity as well as by roping in a third-party manufacturer. 

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The portable ICU unit is a “sophisticated” machine that is a combination of several products, Gouldie explained.

“So depending upon how many shifts you’re running, how many hands you got touching it, it can take somewhere from 20 to 40 hours to manufacture one device, depending upon how you set up your manufacturing processes,” she said.

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They’re already looking to scale up: “We’ll definitely be running additional shifts. And then once we understand what the demand is, there’s adding additional people as well.”

She says the federal government has been “extremely responsive.”

“Given the measures that have been put in place by the federal government, I fully expect that we will be extremely well supported in terms of being able to execute on that,” Gouldie said. 

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“It’s going to be an interesting few days.”

Recently, a number of provincial health ministers have been announcing plans to purchase ventilators.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott told reporters last Wednesday, “We certainly have an adequate supply for what we’re dealing with right now.”

The province has ordered 300 more ventilators which it expects to receive shortly, she added. Auto part makers are also looking to retool so they can produce ventilators in Ontario.

“We know with many borders shutting down, we need to find our own source internally,” Elliot said.

At his Sunday press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the government’s plan for guaranteeing supplies such as masks and ventilators. 

He said they’ve already seen “a tremendous, positive response from companies.”

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“These are things that we’re going to continue to do and we can assure companies that produce these things that we need them and we will use them,” Trudeau said.

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Global News has reached out to the federal government and the PMO with regards to the exact demand for companies like Thornhill Medical. This story will be updated with a response once received.

— With files by Global News’ Kieron O’Dea, Reuters, The Canadian Press and Global News reporter Kerri Breen

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