The Canadian government says about one million of the face masks it has purchased from China have failed to meet proper standards for health care professionals and will not be distributed to provinces or cities.
Canada is facing competition from countries around the world for protective medical gear right now, the federal Department of Health said, adding that Ottawa is forced at times to purchase vital equipment from unfamiliar suppliers.
“Due to intense global competition for personal protective equipment and medical supplies, countries are engaging with a diverse number of new suppliers and manufacturers to meet the demands of the COVID-19 response effort" said Eric Morrissette, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Canada’s Public Health Agency.
"As a result, the agency is conducting its due diligence on products procured by [Public Services and Procurement], verifying the quality of procured and donated supplies upon receipt,” he said.
The Public Health Agency (PHAC) is screening all medical supplies it’s buying right now, and these masks were supposed to be rated to the KN95 standards for respirators. KN95 is a Chinese rating for respirators that is similar to the N95 rating developed by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The federal Department of Health says KN95 masks are an acceptable alternative to N95 models, but the masks in question did not meet the required filtering standards for N95-type masks, which are rated to capture 95 per cent of tiny particles.
Coronavirus guide: Updates and essential resources about the COVID-19 pandemic
What are the coronavirus rules in my province? A quick guide to what’s allowed and open, or closed and banned
How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts
Mr. Morrissette said the government hopes these masks can be repurposed for non-health care workers where the face-covering requirements are not as strict.
“To date, PHAC has identified approximately one million KN95 masks as non-compliant with specifications for health care settings. These items were not distributed to provinces and territories for front-line health care response, and are being subsequently assessed for use in non-health care settings.”
The Department of Health could not immediately answer last night when asked whether Ottawa is going to obtain a refund for the masks in question.
News of the substandard masks Ottawa received is just the latest example of faulty gear purchased by Canadian governments. The City of Toronto announced in early April it was recalling more than 60,000 faulty surgical masks made in China and provided to staff at long-term care facilities, and is investigating whether caregivers were exposed to COVID-19 while wearing the equipment. The masks were distributed and then recalled after reports of ripping and tearing.
Around the world, countries have found themselves coping with defective equipment, including Spain, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Turkey, which reportedly received faulty masks and tests from companies in China, a country with extensive capacity to make such medical supplies.
In China, crushing demand for masks and other protective equipment has created delays and stressed the logistics system. Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport has become a key centre for dispatching supplies from factories to the rest of the world. Already the world’s third-busiest cargo hub, it has been stretched in ways never before seen. The number of cargo flights is more than double last year’s, including 329 flights on April 17, the highest daily tally in airport history.
The enormous volumes have created problems. Trucks delivering supplies to Shanghai from factories across the country have had to queue for days before they can deliver to warehouses. At the airport, wait times for security scans have grown so long that shipments have missed flights. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have strictly enforced new certification rules designed to prevent the export of defective products, but that have also frustrated the movement of properly made goods. Random custom inspections can add further delays.
At the same time, tarmac space at the airport has grown so tight that airport authorities have given little latitude for the time planes can spend on the ground. Chinese quarantine and testing requirements for pilots are also so strict that airlines have sought to minimize the time their aircraft remain in China, to enable flight crews to leave the country without having to spend the night in a hotel.
The potential for problems to compound has meant that planes are routinely leaving China without full loads.
Two cargo planes chartered by Canadian governments to procure medical gear from China were forced to return home empty this week amid traffic jams at and around an airport in Shanghai.
Last week, Bill Matthews, deputy minister of the Public Services and Procurement department, told the Commons health committee that Canada is “ordering aggressively” from overseas suppliers, mainly in China, and is competing against other countries for the same personal protective equipment and medical supplies.
Mr. Matthews told MPs last week that as of April 13 Canada had ordered more than 293 million surgical masks and more than 130 million N95 respirator masks but had only received a fraction of that in deliveries. To meet longer-term supply needs, Canada has struck domestic supply arrangements, he said.
A senior Canadian official, who was granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the Canadian government is running about four to six chartered flights a week to airlift goods from China, with some of the cargo space allotted for provincial governments.
The official said most flights arrive in Hamilton upon their return to Canada. A Public Health Agency warehouse is nearby, the official said.
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand says Canada is working hard behind the scenes on the increasingly challenging logistics of getting critical COVID-19 medical equipment to Canada from foreign countries.
The Canadian Press
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.