The cannabis industry can help with coronavirus testing. But will the government listen?

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On the outskirts of Toronto, next to the Pearson International Airport, there is a 16,000 square foot cannabis testing laboratory whose owner says it can process 500 coronavirus tests a day. With an investment for additional equipment, that number could rise to more than 1,000 tests a day. 

“Testing right now is just way too slow, it’s unbearably slow,” John Slaughter, the CEO of High North Laboratories told The GrowthOp. “So we started looking internally to see what would it take for us to do that kind of testing and found out it wasn’t really much. We were right on the cusp of it anyway.”

The lab would have to be certified to biosafety standards level two, Slaughter says, but amid the crisis, he is hopeful that certification could come quickly. The first step, and perhaps most challenging, is getting the government to listen.

Slaughter says he has been reaching out to Health Canada, Ontario Public Health, the BDC and other organizations since March 13, but has not yet received a response. 

He sympathizes with the overwhelmed organizations, but feels there’s a gap in knowledge about the capabilities of the cannabis industry and the role it could play during the pandemic. 

“I really think that Industry Canada needs to update its list of companies that can help and understand that there’s a lot of new facilities that have changed and become first-tier facilities,” Slaughter says. “Our facility is less than a year old. Everything’s brand new, let’s use it.”

George Smitherman, the former Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, and now the president and CEO of the Cannabis Council of Canada, says he is working to facilitate connections between the cannabis industry and the health officials amid the ongoing crisis. 

“In any case where I find out that someone’s struggling to get their information across, I can certainly be a conduit,” Smitherman told The GrowthOp. He says he wasn’t familiar with High North’s situation, but that he isn’t surprised to learn about their capabilities. 

“I do know there is some amazing lab capacity out there and I can initiate an expedited contact with Ontario Public Health,” he says. 

Smitherman says it’s a case of “information overload” as public health agencies scramble to stay on top of the pandemic. “It can be difficult to get your information across to the proper spot,” he says, before pointing to cannabis companies across the country that are supporting frontline workers. 

Ontario-based Canopy Growth, the nation’s largest cannabis company, has started donating personal protective equipment and safety masks to hospitals. In Quebec, licensed producer HEXO has donated safety masks to EMS workers. In New Brunswick, Organigram has donated 500 litres of ethanol to be used in the production of hand sanitizer. 

Daniel Sax, the CEO of Sensi Properties, a cannabis real estate investment company, recently donated N95 masks to a local hospital in the Collingwood, Ont. area. He had made a personal order of 150 masks in January for his family but ended up donating 120 back to the health system. 

“These things are really needed mostly by frontline health care staff,” he says. “Doctors and frontline health care staff are a finite resource. We can expand the number of beds, and things like that, but we can’t generate more healthcare workers.”

Sax says the current moment calls for a “wartime effort” from the cannabis sector, and other industries across Canada. 

“This is really a biological war,” he says. “Everyone needs to pitch in and do what they can.”

Sax says there are resources in the cannabis sector that are likely under-utilized, such as recently built, large-scale facilities that are not yet operational due to cash flow issues. Sax says those sites could be used to accommodate recovering COVID-19 patients. 

“Those facilities are built to pharma-grade standards with the right HVAC design, and negative pressure in order to isolate airflow,” he says. “Cannabis companies that have excess facilities should look at getting in touch with either Health Canada or their provincial health authorities about converting those to makeshift hospitals.”

Smitherman says he is seeing efforts from cannabis companies across the country to make an impact in their local communities.

“The beauty of it is that everybody is looking within themselves to see what they can do to be helpful, sometimes its small gestures and perhaps in some cases, we might be able to connect a few really, really essential pieces,” he says. 

“We’re all still startups. Profitability, and the cash flow that comes with it, has been really elusive for our sector. So to see so much humanity, when there’s so much inherent pressure on folks, it’s heartwarming. This is the Canadian way. This is the every sector experience, and we just want to do our part.”

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