OTTAWA — More than half of the 40,000 ventilators the Canadian government ordered early in the pandemic are now sitting unused in the federal emergency stockpile.
Just more than 2,000 of the ventilators have been deployed, either in Canada or abroad. Ottawa is now working to cancel orders for ventilators that have yet to be delivered, but won’t say how much it has paid for the machines.
In the spring of 2020, Canada rushed to shore up supplies of medical and personal protective equipment as Covid-19 case numbers climbed. Dire headlines out of Italy and New York warned of an acute shortage of ventilators for those who were critically ill. A global surge in demand meant Canada could no longer rely on international supply chains.
In response to the crisis, the federal government quickly ordered just over 40,000 ventilators at a cost of C$1.1 billion, the vast majority from Canadian manufacturers that started building the life-saving machines from scratch.
At the time, it was billed as a success story for Canadian ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. By May 2021, more than 27,000 ventilators had been delivered. But the worst-case pandemic scenarios never came to pass, and most of the machines were never needed.
According to figures provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), the federal government has received 27,687 ventilators of the 40,000 it ordered. Of those, 25,964 are in the national emergency strategic stockpile, a reserve of medical and emergency equipment that provinces and territories can request when they run out.
Only 2,048 ventilators have been deployed, including several hundred that have been donated to developing countries.
Public Services and Procurement Canada is working with suppliers to reduce the volumes ordered. The department won’t say how much of the C$1.1 billion has been paid to suppliers, or if the government will save some of that money by canceling orders.
“The Government of Canada is working with Canadian suppliers to identify opportunities to reduce the volumes ordered and support them as these contracts wind down,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “As negotiations are presently underway, we cannot disclose further details related to payment at this time.”
Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said the surplus of ventilators is a “nice problem to have,” in light of the nightmare scenarios doctors in New York and Italy were facing early in the pandemic.
“Under those conditions, ordering a large number of ventilators I think was a very understandable decision,” he said. “Having those makes me sleep a little better at night.”
But he also raised questions about how much maintenance the machines in the stockpile will require to keep them in good working order.
A government website lists 15 suppliers with whom the government signed contracts for ventilators, but the largest are with five Canadian suppliers: CAE Inc., Canadian Emergency Ventilators Inc. (led by StarFish Medical), EPM Global Services Inc., Thornhill Medical and FTI Professional Grade Inc., a consortium of companies that came together on the initiative of Rick Jamieson, an auto-parts manufacturer.
FTI Professional Grade came under scrutiny in late 2020 for the involvement of a former Liberal MP, Frank Baylis. The consortium hired Baylis Medical as a subcontractor to help manufacture the machines, but Jamieson and Baylis insisted his political career had nothing to do with his participation in the project.
FTI was awarded a C$237 million contract for 10,000 ventilators, which the consortium says were fully delivered by the end of 2020. PHAC says 9,056 of those ventilators are now in the emergency stockpile. A total of 403 machines have been distributed across the country, while 539 have been donated to India, Nepal and Pakistan. Two units were returned to the supplier.