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O2 Canada CIO Rich Szasz shows how the company's respiratory mask is fitted while CEO Peter Whitby, right, deals with the company's huge spike business, at the head office in Kitchener on Feb. 14, 2020.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Three weeks ago, Waterloo, Ont.-based startup O2 Canada sold one or two masks a day on its website. But since the spread of the coronavirus, also known now as COVID-19, the company has been swamped with up to 2,000 orders a day.

“It’s been pure pandemonium,” says chief executive officer and co-founder Peter Whitby, acknowledging the company can’t keep up with demand.

O2 Canada is one of several Canadian health-care startups that are seeing an increased interest in their products in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in China.

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Mr. Whitby co-founded O2 with Rich Szasz, now the firm’s chief innovation officer, to tackle global air pollution. But its respiratory masks, called O2 Curve, have attracted consumer demand as a way of preventing transmission of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 was first detected in December, 2019, in Wuhan, China, and the vast majority of the cases and deaths have been there and in the surrounding province of Hubei. But the virus continues to spread worldwide, including to Canada, where there were seven confirmed cases as of last Friday.

Customers can purchase the O2 Curve, which sells for $93, by entering an online queue, but O2 cannot guarantee a shipping date because of depleted inventory. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, direct-to-consumer sales have increased 24,000 per cent.

Simon Parker, professor of entrepreneurship at Ivey Business School in London, Ont., says small-business owners facing sudden increases in sales must assess whether demand is sustainable to determine how much to invest in expansion.

“The difficulty is what to do when you’ve got the really lucrative opportunity and you need more supply badly,” Prof. Parker said. “You don’t want to build costly new production capabilities if that demand is only temporary.”

O2 has scaled up rapidly to 11 full-time employees from eight working around the clock to fill orders. “We’ve never seen so many orders. It’s just been non-stop,” Mr. Whitby said.

The virus can be transmitted from person to person through infected fluid droplets contacting the mouth, nose and eyes. Unlike surgical masks, the O2 Curve fits snugly with an air-tight seal, meaning it can help protect against droplets coming in contact with the mouth and nose. But O2 Canada is careful not to make promises.

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“We’re making sure our customers understand that we don’t know everything about this virus and that we don’t guarantee that our product will prevent it,” Mr. Szasz said.

Hygienic Echo Inc., a startup based out of the KITE Research Institute in Toronto, has also experienced a surge of interest for its hand hygiene technology since the virus emerged.

KITE senior scientist Geoff Fernie has been concerned about hand hygiene for the past 20 years. A veteran of the SARS and H1N1 virus outbreaks, he said COVID-19 has sounded the alarm again on the consequences of poor hand-washing.

Dr. Fernie developed The Buddy Badge, which prompts health-care workers to perform hand hygiene when entering or leaving a patient’s room. The aim is to prevent infections acquired in hospitals or other medical settings.

Powered by artificial intelligence, the wearable smart badge gets a signal from an infrared zone marker indicating if health workers have washed their hands. If the signal indicates no, the badge will vibrate discreetly to prompt the health worker.

Initial studies in the American Journal of Infection Control show the product has the capacity to double the amount of times that hospital workers perform hand hygiene. The Buddy Badge could also be implemented in more mainstream settings, such as schools or restaurants.

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The Buddy Badge has yet to hit market, but since the COVID-19 outbreak, Dr. Fernie has seen growing interest from investors and potential clients. He said the coronavirus has helped people realize the economic cost of disease.

“If you get one of those bugs that becomes an epidemic, then people won’t go to the movies, they won’t go to restaurants, they won’t travel, they won’t go to work,” Dr. Fernie said. “It’s a big deal.”

Prof. Parker, at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey, said it is too early to predict the long-term effects of the virus on consumer behaviour, but if it is like its predecessors, SARS and H1N1, the buzz will likely die down once the virus is contained.

The O2 founders know that overwhelming demand for their products is unlikely to stick. Their priority now is to get masks to as many people as possible without overcommitting themselves.

Mr. Whitby said he expects that wearing protective masks will become more popular in North America as a result of COVID-19, particularly in settings where air is recycled, including the subway or on airplanes.

Despite the spike in sales, O2 Canada’s strategy has stayed consistent since its inception. “Our brand is to help people breathe clean air and we’ll continue to do that,” Mr. Whitby said.

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