Chinese suppliers will replace a million defective masks and thousands of contaminated swabs for coronavirus testing sold to Canada, federal government officials told a House of Commons committee on Friday. The replacements will be provided at no additional cost to the federal taxpayer.
Meanwhile, Canada is buying personal protective equipment and other gear from Chinese suppliers at such a pace that Ottawa expects it will soon be flying about one planeload a day out of Shanghai to Canada.
The flights alone costs between $600,000 and $800,000 each.
Since the pandemic broke, Canada has received 10 planeloads of coronavirus-related protective material, mostly destined for use by front-line health-care workers across Canada.
But before supplies from China can be put to use in Canadian facilities, officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada must certify that the products meet Canadian standards.
At least one million N95 masks sourced from a Chinese supplier and thousands of swabs used in coronavirus test kits, sourced from a separate Chinese supplier, failed to meet Canadian standards or were found to be contaminated.
Where N95 masks cost about $1.20 per unit before the crisis hit, the federal government is now paying as much as $6 per mask in a highly competitive global market. The one million masks disqualified by PHAC officials failed mostly because of problems with the rubber bands that hold the mask to the face. As for the contaminated swabs, a method was found in Canada to disinfect them so they could be put to use here.
Bill Matthews, deputy minister for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), told the House government operations and estimates committee on Friday that both Chinese suppliers have indicated they will “stand behind their product” and make good on the defects by providing replacement products at no charge.
PSPC launched a website Friday to provide Canadians with information about what Canada has ordered and what has been delivered. As of midday Friday, for example, the site indicated that Canada has ordered more than 155 million N95 masks and has so far received about 5.3 million, all of which were subject to testing by Canadian officials.
The federal government has also ordered 34.8 million face shields, 118.4 million gowns and 32,070 ventilators from both international and domestic suppliers. The government is expecting shipments of those items to start arriving next week.
The government cautions that “given the high global demand for these goods, there is a possibility that not all contracts will be entirely fulfilled.”
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand told MPs that 23,000 Canadian companies have submitted applications to the government to produce coronavirus-related material and services as varied as security services, nursing services, paramedic services for First Nations communities, cleaning services and the manufacturing of personal protective equipment. Stanfield’s Underwear of Truro, N.S., for example, is now producing about 100,000 medical gowns a week.
Opposition MPs also grilled Anand and Matthews about reports of Canadian cargo planes returning empty from China.
The committee was told that only one plane chartered by the government of Canada returned empty from China but that the supplies the plane was to have ferried to Canada have since arrived.
Officials said the plane left empty partly due to incoming inclement weather at the Shanghai airport but also because of extremely busy conditions at the airport.
“So the goods were unable to get from the warehouse to be loaded on to the plane in time for departure,” Matthews told the committee, which was meeting via videoconference. “We do have lots of planes lined up. The empty plane was not ideal but because of the rules around crew … and managing their workload and time in the air, the carrier had to take off with an empty load.”
Matthews said other planes — planes not hired by the government of Canada — were also forced to depart the Shanghai airport without their cargo. “This is not an issue unique to the government of Canada.”
Anand told the committee that since Ottawa stepped in to become the bulk purchaser of personal protective equipment on behalf of provinces, territories and health facilities, there have been 10 planes loaded with supplies that have successfully made the trip from China.
China has become a vital supplier of personal protective equipment to Canada and many other countries. To tap into China’s factory system, Canada has leased a warehouse in Shanghai.
Matthews told the committee that, in the coming days, the amount of gear being shipped from China will total about one planeload a day.
Right now, Air Canada and Cargojet have been hired by the government to carry that gear, but Matthews told the committee that the government is aiming to certify other carriers, such as WestJet or Air Transat, to be able to pick up some of the cargo transport business.