OTTAWA – When the first ventilators rolled off a hastily put together assembly line, Rick Jamieson wanted to deliver them himself.
Jamieson, president of ABS Friction an Ontario brake pad manufacturer, climbed into the cab of a truck and went along for a 400-kilometre drive in late July.
“I, with the truck driver, drove it to Ottawa. That’s how proud of it we were.”
Jamieson’s first 12 ventilators were part of an order of 10,000 that a consortium he helped put together is delivering. In total, the government ordered 40,000 from a variety of companies, including several small firms that overcame technical challenges, supply issues and other problems to get the machines built.
The artificial breathing machines can be essential for COVID patients, but even as the second wave hits there isn’t a high demand and experts believe, even in a worst-case, these machines may never be used.
Back in March, Jamieson saw the news and decided he wanted to do something to help. The virus was ravaging New York City and northern Italy, overwhelming hospitals and leading to many deaths. People with existing respiratory conditions seemed particularly vulnerable
“My brother David died of an asthma attack. I’m asthmatic and I said I am going to see what I can do on this to help out.”
The 40,000 ventilators the government ordered came with a $1.1-billion price tag. Few ventilators were made in Canada before the pandemic and most of the companies awarded contracts had to start from scratch. To date, the government has received just 3,210, but they also haven’t been needed.
In an email, procurement department spokesperson Michèle LaRose said they ordered ventilators from five Canadian companies and eight international ones, but the Canadian firms are doing the bulk of the work. They said they expect the rest by early next year.
“All deliveries are expected by March 2021. Public Services and Procurement Canada continues to work with manufacturers to monitor delivery progress,” she said.
Through the summer, ICU beds were mostly free of COVID patients and some provinces are now instituting lockdowns and restrictions precisely to avoid swamping intensive care units and forcing all these new ventilators into service.
Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist and professor at McMaster University, said in the early days there was a real fear ventilators could be needed on a mass scale.
“There was so much unknown about this disease, no one knew whether or not there were super spreaders in the community, whether or not there was a lot under the surface.”
According to Canadian Institutes of Health Information, there are approximately 75,000 hospital beds in Canada, but having a bed is just half of the problem. Chagla said even if all 40,000 ventilators the government ordered were put into service, you would still need the doctors, respiratory technologists and critical care nurses to operate them.
“Some of these COVID patients … they’re very difficult to ventilate to begin with and often need some very experienced operators of the ventilator,” he said.
He said if hospitals were set to be overwhelmed, governments now know they can bring in restrictions and slow the spread of the virus. He said it doesn’t hurt however, to be over prepared.
“Some of them may unfortunately be stockpiled, which is not the end of the world. We will have pandemics in the future and hopefully the stock that’s being bought up in Canada is relatively future proof.”
After decades in the automotive business, Jamieson has a deep well of contacts in the industry that he brought together. He said everyone he spoke with was willing to pitch in on the project and there are several manufacturers helping out.
“It didn’t seem to matter who I called, people took my call and said, I will help.”
GM retooled one of its facilities to make surgical masks and Jamieson said his industry was well-suited to retool and manufacture something different.
“We know how to make things and we know how to make things at high volume.”
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Jamieson didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and didn’t know how, so he sought to license a ventilator design. An attempt with a company in England fell apart, but then Medtronic, a massive American firm, agreed to release technical designs and allow use of their patent for free. Jamieson’s team jumped on the chance.
They partnered with Baylis Medical to help manufacture the Medtronic devices. After early meetings with Health Canada, assuring bureaucrats they could make the devices, they were awarded a $237-million contract to deliver 10,000 ventilators.
The contract has drawn criticism from opposition parties, partly due to to the involvement of Frank Baylis, chairman of Baylis Medical and a Liberal MP from 2015 to 2019.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner said in the house that it raises questions because it was awarded before the ventilators were even approved by Health Canada. She specifically questioned why this order went through and orders for rapid tests languished.
“The health minister agreed to pay $237 million to Baylis Medical for 10,000 ventilators, even though the devices were not approved in any jurisdiction,” she said
Jamieson said their ventilator is a copy of Meditronic’s device and he rejects any suggestion of impropriety. Their copy of Meditronic’s device wasn’t approved in Canada but Meditronic’s original was and it was simply a matter of proving to Health Canada they were making the same unit.
“I didn’t know Frank Baylis was a politician when we signed them for the contract,” he said. “They are the largest, privately held Canadian medical device company. Who else should I have partnered with?”
He said Baylis is helping manufacture the devices because they have the clean-room facilities necessary to keep the units sterile.
“I’m not making them in an auto parts plant.”
Jamieson isn’t the only one learning to build a ventilator from scratch. StarFish Medical, a company that normally designs and consults on medical devices, got into the business and is expected to deliver 7,500 devices for a total cost of $169 million.
John Walmsley, a vice president with the company, said they found a design from an inventor in Winnipeg. The real challenge was finding parts and their design had to be structured around what they could find.
“There were a lot of design decisions that had to be made very fast, people worked long hours, seven days a week.”
Walmsley said they reached out at one point to Yorkville Instruments, a company that makes musical instruments, amplifiers and other audio equipment. The ventilator needed a lot of switches and dials and the volume had gone down on the music industry.
“There wasn’t a lot of music being done, not a lot of people buying amps at that time. So they stepped up. And we’re happy to use their components.”
Walmsley said his company has received approval from Health Canada for their unit and now expects to start delivering units quickly. He said when they have completed this order they may stay in the business.
“We’re fulfilling our commitments first, and then see where that leaves us. But we’re definitely interested in the future of the company.”
Jamieson is not interested in keeping his ventilator business going. Meditronic only opened their patent for as long as the pandemic lasts or 2024, whichever comes sooner. He said they have delivered about 3,000 units thus far with four shifts running in the Toronto facility and expected to be done in December.
He said his project should be seen as a success story.
“I know that Canadian engineers and Canadian ingenuity were unbelievable on the project.”
He said he did this fundamentally to protect people.
“I am going to have a glass of wine when we save the first Canadian life. That’s what I am going do to celebrate.”