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Canadian tech firms lobby governments with proposed COVID-19 solutions

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On Tuesday morning, Microbix Biosystems received a licence from Health Canada to start selling its medical devices, which ensure the accuracy of COVID-19 tests. The Mississauga, Ont. firm had already received a comparable licence from the United States, but since getting Canadian approval wasn’t a sure thing, it enlisted the aid of a lobbying firm. As CEO Cameron Groome told The Logic prior to Health Canada’s approval, he wanted to help his country before selling his product internationally. 

“I’m enough of a patriot and a member of the community that I’m going to make damn sure that the governments here are aware of what we can offer before we start selling all our product abroad,” Groome said. Now that Microbix has Health Canada approval, it’s trying to secure contracts with both the federal and Ontario governments. It currently has the capacity to verify the accuracy of 1.5 million tests per week, and can ship nationwide as early as April 30. 

Microbix is one of the early winners in the flurry of lobbying activity that’s occurring due to COVID-19. Nationwide, there are 657 organizations that have registered to lobby on some aspect of the pandemic in recent weeks. An analysis by The Logic of lobbyist registrations at the provincial, federal and municipal levels nationwide shows medical technology companies have been among the most prominent, with several dozen lobbying governments for contracts.

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Talking Point

Several dozen medical technology companies are lobbying governments across Canada seeking contracts to help with COVID-19. From faster testing kits to ultraviolet disinfection towers and telemedicine, some firms are already securing contracts while many others are hopeful they’ll receive one soon.

Microbix is not the only medtech lobbyist that’s already received an influx of business. Quebec-based Sanuvox Technologies has sold its ultraviolet radiation disinfection towers—which it says can disinfect an operating theatre or waiting room with 99.999 per cent thoroughness—in Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia. 

“We also have just completed a portable unit for N95 mask disinfection. We have orders already from Quebec and some Canadian facilities as well,” Jocelyn Dame, president of Sanuvox, told The Logic. 

Toronto-based Precision Biomonitoring is one of several thousand that have responded to the provincial government’s call for help by submitting a proposal through the province’s Ontario Together portal; it’s also one of about a dozen medtech firms that have registered to lobby the Ontario government on COVID-19 in recent weeks. The company, which says it is able to conduct nine tests per hour for COVID-19, was one of the first firms to receive a letter of intent from the federal government for its technology. It’s since applied to work with the Ontario government, is providing testing in Indigenous communities and has seen a flood of requests from companies. It hasn’t yet signed any government procurement agreements, but hopes that will change. 

“Ontario is home to some of the most innovative industries across Canada and around the globe. We are hearing directly from our business community on how we can solve some of the complex challenges posed by COVID-19 quickly and efficiently,” said Rebecca Bozzato, a spokesperson for Minister of Economic Development Vic Fedeli. 

“We continue to consult with leading tech industry organizations like the [Council of Canadian Innovators], Ontario Centres of Excellence, and Regional Innovation Centres as we navigate through this unprecedented time together.”

Virtual health care and telehealth have also seen a particular flurry of lobbying efforts. MediSeen, which provides a platform for virtual health-care appointments, is lobbying the Ontario government and “seeking partnerships with the Ontario Government to provide virtual care support to Ontario’s medical practitioners and vulnerable patients to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.” CEO Daniel Warner said he couldn’t comment on ongoing discussions with the province “other than to say that we’re encouraged by how solutions-focused they are.” 

Telus secured a similar contract with the Alberta government to provide virtual care services via its Babylon app. In Quebec, Montreal-based Dialogue participated in a proof-of-concept for the development of a telemedicine chatbot to transmit COVID-19 information for the provincial government, but Quebec decided not to pursue a larger contract. Two other firms are also lobbying to offer telemedicine services for the government: DermaGo, which offers teledermatology services, and Morneau Shepell, which offers online therapy services. 

“We are currently providing this service to all residents of Manitoba above the age of 16 and are part of a similar staged roll-out in Ontario,” said Nigel Branker, president of health and productivity solutions at Morneau Shepell, adding that Quebec is considering his firm’s offerings, as are a number of provincial and territorial governments, as well as several federal departments and agencies. 

“As the largest mental health and wellbeing provider in the country, we have a number of services and supports available to help Canadians deal with COVID-19 and its impacts on our mental, physical and financial health.”

When it comes to medtech, Quebec is the province with the most firms lobbying for government contracts to help with COVID-19. In addition to Dialogue and Sanuvox, there’s BrainBox AI, which is looking to improve heating, ventilation and air conditioning to mitigate airborne viruses in government buildings that need to stay open during the pandemic. Biron Groupe Santé, a Quebec-based diagnostic firm, is offering to help the provincial government with testing using a Cobas 4800 device that it’s about to receive. The “government showed interest in our offer and seemed open to work in partnership with us. We’re still in the plan from what we’ve heard,” said Annie Gauthier, communications head. 

There’s also a group co-led by Montreal AI researcher Yoshua Bengio, as well as Optel Vision, both of which, as The Logic reported earlier this month, are looking to deploy contact-tracing technology. Nicolas Vigneault, communications director for Quebec’s health ministry, said the government was approached by Optel, but has not followed up.

Optel is one of only two medtech firms lobbying at the federal level, along with Viral Me, which is pushing a similar technology. 

In British Columbia, Wuhan EasyDiagnosis Biomedicine, which is based in Wuhan, China, is looking to “share information with government regarding the company’s various test kits for COVID-19 that have been deployed in other jurisdictions.” The firm has hired Bruce Young, who served as a senior adviser to Prime Minister Paul Martin and B.C. co-chair of the 2015 Liberal election campaign, to lobby on its behalf. Neither Young, the firm nor B.C. responded to requests for comment. 

Medtech firms aren’t the only ones currently lobbying governments. Many organizations, including Cirque du Soleil and the Tides Canada Initiatives Society, are seeking financial support. Others are looking for the right to stay open, despite non-essential businesses nationwide shutting their doors. Western Union is lobbying for an exemption in Quebec and B.C.; Bell Textron Helicopter, a Mirabel, Que.-based helicopter manufacturer, is looking for a federal exemption.

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CAE, a Quebec-based simulation technology firm, has already sold 100,000 N95 masks to the provincial government. In Saskatchewan, Interac is lobbying the government, offering to help disburse payments to citizens during the pandemic. Its ask is separate from the federal proposal by a group of leading fintechs to disburse $2 billion to small businesses on which The Logic reported last week. In Ontario, Sysco Canada is lobbying “regarding supply chain and the coordination of the distribution of food and other goods in the fight against COVID-19.” The firm, which is the country’s largest supplier of restaurants, started selling directly to consumers for the first time this week.