Market momentum eludes domestic PPE makers

Canada’s attempt to ‘reshore’ production is more challenging than anticipated: observer

Photo credit: Maridav/Getty

Months after COVID-19 began creating an acute shortage in Canada’s medical personal protective equipment (PPE) supply, Ottawa’s shift to domestic production has not taken significant hold.

That’s the assessment of one import/export consultant directly involved in the procurement process in Canada.

Omar Allam, founder and CEO of the Allam Advisory Group, said that while consumers will see more “Made in Canada” items such as non-medical face masks, N95 respirators and gloves come onto the market in the next 18 months, the country will have to continue to rely on sources outside its borders for the overall PPE supply chain.

“You can’t just flip a switch and put a machine in an empty warehouse, then be ready and expect to produce masks,” Allam said. “It’s a pretty well-clad operation that you have to put together, and that’s not including all the regulatory and certification processes. Even if you produce domestically, most companies still have to source the needed raw materials from countries like China.

“The picture is becoming clear that we are still lacking PPEs across all different types of items.”

What’s driving the demand for PPEs in Canada isn’t simply the needs of front-line medical workers. According to a Statistics Canada report published last month, 70% of businesses said they need PPEs to operate to meet local health regulations to stay open. While the health-care sector (95%) reported the highest need, industries like accommodation/food services (86%) and retail (81%) also reported increased demand.

And while the number of businesses that reported being concerned about PPE shortages has dropped, it remains high.

“Businesses that need a given item of PPE continue to be most likely to expect shortages for respirators [23.6%], disinfectant wipes [19.5%], disposable gowns [13.7%], and gloves [13.2% for nitrile, 10.8% for non-medical],” the report said. “Among businesses that need PPE, 21.2% expect a shortage in the next three months for at least one type of PPE that they require.”

With new daily COVID-19 cases in the hundreds or more in Canada’s five most populous provinces, the demand for PPEs will not decrease any time soon. Allam said more attention needs to be paid to production and supply chains so that supplies do not dry up.

The issue is also exacerbated by China, the world’s largest exporter of PPEs and related raw materials, which in April began to restrict its list of approved exporters to mostly large state-owned enterprises. That situation, Allam said, has not changed.

“It’s business as usual, and what it is doing is that those with a higher risk appetite will continue to tap into the Chinese market for sure, but nothing else has really changed.”

Other domestic producers, such as B.C.’s Maple Leaf Laboratories, which are producing N95 masks through a partnership with manufacturer Layfield Group, have reported numerous hurdles in ramping up production, including a lack of attention from federal officials in recent months and the requirement to send products to the United States for certification and testing.

“As a Canadian manufacturer, we are international applicants to certification, and the officials in the U.S. have made it really clear we are not the priority,” said Gordon Zhang, one of Maple Leaf’s founders. “That’s why we have to wait longer. We don’t have testing capacity here in Canada; you have to send it to an independent lab somewhere – whether it be the U.S., Europe or China.”

Allam said that’s why Ottawa’s best strategy may be to strengthen its foreign trade, because Canada cannot shift quickly to large-scale domestic PPE production.

“I know everyone’s trying their best, but the reality is we have not put together a good picture, and it’s making people question the government’s motives and execution,” he said. “We are going to get to a point where we need to attract good investors, and we also need to ensure we have a good base of companies that are able to go do business globally.”