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Spirit of York Distillery Co. - Head Distiller Mark Harrop seen here on March 18, 2020 - began selling hand sanitizer at its site in Toronto on Thursday and plans to donate the proceeds to food banks.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The leading maker of hand sanitizer is operating its plants around the clock, a major Canadian distiller is adding the germ-killing gel to its production line and Health Canada is relaxing its rules governing sales to meet unprecedented demand for the scarce commodity.

Fear of the novel coronavirus, which took hold in January and has now spread to more than 175 countries, has led people to snap up hand sanitizer. Most retail outlets across Canada have been out of stock for weeks. While producers say more is on the way, it’s not clear how long it will take to reach retailers.

New suppliers are jumping in to fill the void, including one of Canada’s largest distillers. Alcohol is the main ingredient in hand sanitizers, leaving major producers of whisky, rum and other liquors well-equipped to mass produce the disinfectant product.

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Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd. announced on Thursday that it is adding hand sanitizer to the production line at its distillery in Windsor, Ont.

The Toronto-based producer of J.P. Wiser’s Canadian whisky typically distills 180,000 litres of alcohol every day. Now it will use its vast supplies of alcohol to make hand sanitizer and donate the bottles in the local community and to the Toronto Transit Commission.

“Corby is proud to support the efforts of the Canadian and Ontario governments and communities across the country in fighting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Patrick O’Driscoll, chief executive officer of the company, said in a news release.

Gojo Industries Inc., maker of Purell hand sanitizer, began ramping up production in early January, when the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in China. The Ohio-based, family-owned company is now operating its three manufacturing plants in the United States and France around the clock as the crisis worsens.

“We can tell you we are shipping Purell products to retailers every single day,” Gojo CEO Carey Jaros said in a statement. “Consumers are buying out these products as soon as they hit shelves, which is amplifying the sense of shortage.”

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Health Canada announced on Thursday that is responding to the urgent need for products that can help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, by allowing hand sanitizers, face masks and disinfectants to be sold in Canada that may not “fully meet” regulatory requirements. These include products with different packaging from what was authorized, such as English-only labels, and those approved for sale in other jurisdictions, but not Canada.

For some other new players jumping into the hand-sanitizer market, including pharmacies that specialize in preparing personalized medications, the key alcohol ingredient they need is in short supply.

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In the United States, specialty pharmacies are pitching in to help slow the spread of the virus. Compounding pharmacies – those that specialize in customizing medications for patients who need a pill transformed into a liquid or an allergen-free drug – got the go-ahead from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Saturday to make their hand sanitizer during the coronavirus outbreak.

But the alcohol-based ingredients mandated in the FDA formula are not available from distributors, according to a letter to the agency from several pharmacy associations on Wednesday.

The FDA requires pharmacists to use 75-per-cent isopropyl alcohol – commonly known as rubbing alcohol – in their hand sanitizers. In their letter, the associations ask the FDA to allow pharmacists to purchase food-grade alcohol from liquor stores – the same type used by distillers.

Scott Brunner, CEO of the Alliance for Pharmacy Compounding, said in an interview that he is not aware of any wholesalers that currently have alcohol that meets the FDA formula.

The “absurdity,” he said, is that the 1,200 pharmacists his group represents cannot do their bit to help meet demand while small-batch makers of gin, rye whisky and other spirits are bottling hand sanitizer.

“Bless them for doing it, but why on earth are we getting hand sanitizers from distilleries when you’ve got your neighbourhood pharmacist who is perfectly equipped to do this?” Mr. Brunner said.

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The FDA did not respond to a request for comment.

While Corby is the first major spirit maker in Canada to leap into the market, several small-batch distilleries in North America are also making alcohol-based sanitizers. Spirit of York Distillery Co. began selling hand sanitizer at its site in Toronto on Thursday and plans to donate the proceeds to food banks.

Jan Westcott, CEO of Spirits Canada, the industry association that represents major players such as Corby and Bacardi Ltd., said his members are well-suited to producing products that are held to a high standard and much regulatory oversight.

Spirits Canada urged the federal government to work with its members so they can help meet market demand. Mr. Westcott said he told the government, “We’d like to do this. Can we expedite whatever needs to happen so that we can do that?”

He said he gives credit to some of the small distillers for trying to help out during the shortage, but worries they may be running afoul of the federal Food and Drugs Act, which governs what claims a disinfectant product can make about its efficacy. Spirit of York said its hand sanitizer has been carefully crafted to follow the strict guidelines of the World Health Organization.

Mr. Westcott said that Corby is better positioned than most distillers to make such a product, from a regulatory perspective, because its Hiram Walker & Sons distillery has a long history of supplying alcohol to the cosmetics, pharmaceutical and food industries. As such, he said, the company already has the necessary Health Canada approvals.

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No one can say when consumers can expect to see more products on retail store shelves in Canada.

Loblaw Cos. Ltd. executive chairman Galen Weston has assured customers in a notice posted on its website that the Toronto-based retailer is not running out of food or essential supplies at its grocery stores and Shoppers Drug Mart outlets. However, he adds, “There are a few items, like hand sanitizer, that may take longer to get back.”

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