3M to make critical N95 masks at Brockville, Ont., plant

The federal and Ontario governments have convinced manufacturing giant 3M to start making N95 respirator masks at its plant in Brockville, Ont., a move that will give Canada a domestic supply of critical personal protective equipment, CBC News has learned.

The two levels of government and the company will evenly split a financial investment of at least $70-million to boost production capacity at the existing 3M facility in Brockville, with a goal of producing masks by 2021. Both levels of government have also agreed to long-term agreements to buy masks from the company.

Federal and provincial sources tell CBC News the official announcement will be made Friday afternoon by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford in Brockville.

Since the early days of the pandemic, Ottawa has made it a priority to boost the domestic PPE supply chain. It’s had success on products such as surgical masks, medical gowns and gloves.

But Canada has been forced to rely heavily on factories in China and the U.S. for the more specialized N95 respirators — and there have been problems with both. 

Millions of Chinese-made masks failed to meet Canadian quality standards and couldn’t be used by front-line health-care workers. 

Boosting domestic production

Earlier this year, U.S. border officials stopped a shipment of masks headed to Ontario after President Donald Trump ordered 3M to stop exporting critical medical supplies abroad. That touched off a frenzy of high-level diplomacy so that Canada could secure an export ban exemption to keep the critical supplies coming.

Those episodes underscored Canada’s reliance on foreign countries for essential medical supplies during a crisis like COVID-19, a vulnerability that had Ford pushing to make Canada completely self-sufficient.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada has been forced to rely heavily on factories in China and the U.S. for specialized N95 respirators — and there have been problems with both. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

“We can never, ever be put in the position again that we are relying on countries around the world to support us with PPEs,” Ford said in April. 

Because they run the health-care systems, the provinces buy most PPE supplies. The federal government has been backstopping those supplies by using its purchasing power to buy supplies on what has become a cut-throat international market.

In March, Ottawa also outlined its plan to kickstart domestic production of PPE to create a longer-term supply. That included working with another company, Medicom, to establish an N95 production line in Montreal. The company said Thursday production of N95-type masks is underway at that facility and it is working through regulatory requirements in order to be able to deliver the product.

Since January, 3M has boosted its global production of N95 and hopes to ramp up to 2-billion N95 masks a year by the end of 2020. 

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