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COVID-19 roundup: Made-in-Canada solutions

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo (left), Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and ministers listen as Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 virus in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld
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This story has been updated with revised numbers of CERB applicants provided after publication.

It’s day 28 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is now 17,840 as of publication time, up 1,180 since yesterday, but a six per cent decrease in daily new cases from the three-day prior average. On their respective 28th day, U.S. daily new cases were up five per cent from the three-day prior average; the U.K. had a whopping 61 per cent increase in daily new cases from the three-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were up 27 per cent.* 

Over the past 24 hours, 786 people have died in the U.K.; the worst daily death toll since the outbreak began. Meanwhile, deaths from the virus in England are 78 per cent higher than first reported. 

Pandemic procurement: The federal government has ordered up to 30,000 ventilators from Canadian suppliers including Thornhill Medical, flight simulator manufacturer CAE and a consortium led by medical device-services firm StarFish Medical, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday. “These companies and partnerships are made-in-Canada solutions leveraging mostly Canadian intellectual property and manufacturing expertise,” said Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. Meanwhile, clothing companies including outerwear brand Canada Goose and athleisure retailer Arc’teryx will make medical gowns. They are among the over 22,000 submissions Ottawa received to its call for businesses to offer products and services that may be useful in antiviral efforts. Some of the companies now turning to ventilator manufacturing have seen their core businesses hit hard by the pandemic. StarFish partner Linamar, a major auto-parts manufacturer, has shut most of its North American and European facilities, while CAE said on Tuesday it would temporarily lay off 2,600 of its 10,500 employees. 

Meanwhile, on Monday night, the Liberal government sent the opposition its draft legislation to enact the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), and parties’ top legislative deputies “will be speaking throughout the day to reach an agreement,” Trudeau said. Modifications are coming, he suggested. “A lot of work has been done since we announced our plan to subsidize wages,” Trudeau said. “We continue to rely on your input and feedback as we refine it.”

1,503,000: That’s the total number of Canadians who applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit on Monday and Tuesday. Since March 15, the federal government has received a total of 4.02 million applications for emergency assistance, of which it has processed just over three million.

Mask on: As illustrated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, beards can interfere with how well masks prevent the spread of COVID-19. In Israel—where many men wear beards for religious reasons—the health ministry is producing masks to accommodate the facial hair, as officials in the country now recommend people cover their noses and mouths in public. Huawei, meanwhile, is shipping millions of masks and other protective gear to Canada, as health officials scramble to maintain their stock—Toronto had to recall more than 60,000 masks shipped to a long-term care facility over quality concerns, and the U.S. threatened to cut Canada off from its main N95 supply. The Trump administration and manufacturer 3M reached an agreement to keep shipping masks to Canada and Latin America, to which it had also threatened to stop exporting. “So the 3M saga ends very happily,” U.S. President Donald Trump said

In the markets: The Canadian dollar reached an 11-day high on Tuesday, standing at 72 cents to the U.S. dollar. After a morning rally, the S&P 500 lost 0.16 per cent, the Dow Jones dropped 0.12 per cent and the Nasdaq fell 0.33 per cent. The Toronto Stock Exchange grew marginally by 0.16 per cent. The White House is in talks with Congress to get an additional US$250 billion in loans for small businesses. Chinese firms, meanwhile, are now looking to companies in Europe for cheap buying opportunities. New numbers from RBC Global Asset Management show its mutual fund assets under management dropped 9.5 per cent in value in March, with most of that decline coming from a drop in asset prices rather than investors cashing out. There’s still no sign Canada’s banks will withhold dividend payments, as some banks around the world have decided. Amid the slight price rebound, G20 energy ministers are preparing to meet virtually on Friday in a bid to prevent the further collapse of the energy markets; the price of West Texas Intermediate dropped 6.25 per cent on Tuesday, and Exxon announced it would cut its 2020 capital spending from about US$33 billion to roughly US$23 billion. Alberta’s energy minister is urging the federal government to release an aid package for the industry soon, saying the measures have taken “too long.” 

“You’ll be pleased to know that we do consider both the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny to be essential workers”: With the spring holiday coming up this weekend, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered the good news to children, but also cautioned them to keep their expectations in check as “it is a bit difficult at the moment for the Bunny to perhaps be everywhere.” Leaders in Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I. have since followed suit. 

Counting to 30 per cent: Sales of Voltera’s 3D prototype printer have been rising for the last few years, so “it will require a very large drop to be able to dip below” the 30 per cent threshold for year-over-year revenue loss required for businesses to qualify for the CEWS, CEO Alroy Almeida told The Logic. While demand from educational clients “dried up as soon as schools began to close,” he said it’s not yet clear whether customers who develop hardware will continue to invest in capital equipment needed for R&D. Kitchener, Ont.-based Voltera didn’t meet the CEWS criteria for March, but might in April and May. “Proving we will qualify is not the challenge,” said Almeida. “The challenge is knowing whether we will or not in advance.” That uncertainty—and not knowing how long the firm can continue to import parts or export finished products—makes it difficult to plan. Almeida said the government is “doing what they think is best to keep capital within businesses, in as simple a program as possible.” But he’d welcome a tiered program based on revenue decline, as well as more testing and tracing to slow the spread of the virus. “If the government gets us back to the conditions where we can do business as soon as possible, we won’t need a wage subsidy,” he said.     

Cross-country checkup: The spread of COVID-19 is diverging in Eastern and Western Canada. B.C. and Alberta saw new cases increase 30 per cent and 95 per cent, respectively, between Monday and a week earlier; cases in Ontario and Quebec, meanwhile, grew a respective 250 per cent and 150 per cent over that period. The disparities could be linked to differences in how the provinces test and report their results, or that the western provinces experienced outbreaks earlier than those in the east, said Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. However, Ontario has reduced its testing this month, from reporting 6,200 test results on April 1 to 2,568 today. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is predicting upwards of 25 per cent unemployment in the province as a result of COVID-19. A mine in Nunavut has launched a mobile lab to test employees onsite, with results ready within three hours. A woman in her 70s has died of COVID-19 in Cape Breton, the first reported death from the virus in Nova Scotia. P.E.I., meanwhile, has had no new cases for five straight days, with the number of reported cases sitting at 22. 

Researchers at Sinai Health’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto are developing a robotic system that can process mass testing to determine who has already had the virus and is now immune; the technology could shed light on the scale of infection. At least 40 hospitals are participating in an experimental clinical trial using the plasma of patients who have recovered from COVID-19 to treat those who still have it. Quebec announced $100 million in funding to train workers for the post-pandemic economy. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has accused the City of Ottawa of overstepping in issuing tickets to people violating social-distancing rules. Montreal has cancelled all public events until July 2. And the National Film Board of Canada has over 4,000 titles available to stream, including over 200 films by Indigenous directors.

Bay Street to Main Street: Scotiabank CEO Brian Porter said the bank was “resilient” and will “come through this crisis on solid footing.” After the pandemic, he said, “There will be permanent changes to the way people live, interact and work.” The bank’s $15-billion investment in technology has allowed 60 per cent of its employees to work from home. 

  • Novo Textiles, a Coquitlam, B.C.-based company that makes pillows and dog beds, is retooling to make N95 masks; it will be the first Canadian company certified to do so.  
  • Standfield’s, a Nova Scotia-based undergarment manufacturer, has signed a contract with the provincial public health authority to manufacture 30,000 protective gowns every week. The first shipment will be April 15. 
  • Cell-isolation tools made by Vancouver’s Stemcell Technologies are being used in over 30 COVID-19 studies worldwide.
  • Alberta Premier Kenney is in talks with Shopify to potentially help some Alberta businesses move online. 
  • Ontario-based tenant-screening company Naborly is reportedly asking landlords to help it create a database of tenants who missed April 1 rent in what some privacy experts and housing advocates are calling a “blacklist.” 
  • Ontario is restricting short-term-rental companies to provide space only to those “who are in need of housing during the emergency period.” 
  • Some Ontario dairy farmers are being told to dump milk. 
  • Loblaw is soliciting its executive employees to volunteer to leave their desk jobs to work in grocery stores to help ease the pressure on frontline workers. 
  • After initially proposing to move it online, Shopify has cancelled its annual developers conference Unite.
  • The Canadian telecom market could lose $2 billion in revenues, according to IDC analysts. 
  • Busbud, a Quebec-based bus ticket sales startup, has laid off a third of its workforce.
  • Raw Signal Group, a Toronto-based training company, is offering an online, self-study course for bosses dealing with the new leadership challenges brought about by the pandemic. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: The National Research Council of Canada is looking for alternative solutions for the industrial production of filtration material used in N95 and surgical masks. Applications are open until April 13. Staffing app Hyr has expanded and repurposed its platform to help match non-profit or government organizations with volunteers, and displaced workers to essential-service companies like Loblaw, Walmart and Amazon; it has waived fees for independent businesses and said it will not profit from any shifts filled. Over 3,500 workers have joined the app since March 15. Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters has created a helpful guide on what to do when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. If you are a COVID-19 researcher and need help with a task—anything from transcription to literature to technical analysis—you can apply for it on Crowdfight COVID-19. Ample Labs has built a chatbot to help people experiencing homelessness in Toronto access information about community care, COVID-19 prevention and mental health support, and is raising money for the project. You can donate here. The Statistics Canada-Canadian Chamber of Commerce survey looking to measure the impact of the coronavirus on business is live

Scale-ups most concerned about revenue: A majority of Canadian scale-up CEOs cited revenue as their top concern amid COVID-19, in a survey conducted by the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Interest-free loans and loan guarantees were flagged as the most helpful of the federal government policy responses by the 42 CEOs. Many raised concerns about scale-ups being ineligible for the wage subsidy. “Tech companies focus on growth, not profitability. The $10B to BDC + EDC [for direct lending and other financing] is not available to us,” Plurilock CEO Ian Paterson said. The survey was conducted between March 27 to 30—before a number of prominent tech firms, including Borrowell, Ritual and Hopper, had layoffs. The scale-up CEOs surveyed suggested a number of additional measures the government could take to support the sector, including procuring needed resources for COVID-19 from domestic tech firms and immediately paying out SR&ED claims. As The Logic reported last week, nearly $200 million in SR&ED money for tech firms is currently on hold amid COVID-19. 

Advice from an investor: Panache Ventures’ Patrick Lor was “caught off guard” by the sudden shutdown in the economy. No investor had ever planned for the scenario that was playing out right now, where “really, there was nothing you can do,” Lor told The Logic. Investment opportunities that were once thought as “safe havens”—real estate or equities, for example—aren’t anymore. Portfolios are seeing 50 to 70 per cent losses in some cases, according to Lor, “in what you thought [were] boring, safe investments.” He said Panache doesn’t yet know the consequences of the shutdown for its 67 portfolio firms.

Lor is now bracing for a changed post-pandemic investment culture in Canada and around the world that will see venture capital investors “go two or three levels deeper” to look at resiliency across a company’s operations. “I think there’s a new theme emerging, which is to stress-test everything across the board,” he said. “Up until a few months ago, people just didn’t care about the consequences, but after this, I think investors will ask supply chain questions. I think they’re going to ask about, ‘What if economic activity stops?’…. I think they’re going to really play out a few more scenarios.”

Postcard from Medellín: On Monday, Ely Alvarado starts his new job as a software developer at Kitchener, Ont.-based e-commerce company Smile.io. He should have been in town by now, settling into a new apartment with his wife and six-month-old daughter, but instead, he’s holed up in Medellín, Colombia, where he will work remotely while he waits out the pandemic. 

The city has been in lockdown for about three weeks. “We’re not allowed out for walks at this point; only for going to the supermarket, and that’s only two days per week depending on the last numbers of your identity card,” Alvarado told The Logic. Police patrolling the streets can card people at any time to ensure they’re not violating the strict social-distancing rules. His designated days to leave the house are Wednesdays and Sundays; his wife, who is breastfeeding and taking extra care to stay healthy, doesn’t leave at all. 

Alvarado—who’s originally from Venezuela, but has been working in Colombia for six years—was offered the job in Kitchener in mid-January, at which point he and his wife started their visa applications. “Mine was approved, but then the lockdown here in Colombia started and everything was frozen—my wife and daughter are still waiting.” On top of the administrative hitches, international travel bans are keeping him and his family from leaving. “We’ll keep evaluating the situation until it’s feasible and safe for us to move,” he said. 

“All of these things going around in the world casts anxiety on all of us. If you’re in the middle of a big move, like we were, that increases. But me and my family are grateful that we have jobs—which a lot of people can’t say, unfortunately—[and] that we are healthy and that we are together.” 

Drinking from the firehose: Facebook is adding new tools to allow researchers to analyze users’ high-level mobile location data as part of its Data for Good efforts to track the spread of the coronavirus and social-distancing efforts, which includes a voluntary self-report survey, co-location maps, movement range trends and a social connectedness index. The company is also cracking down on misinformation on WhatsApp; starting today, messages that have been sent through a chain of five or more people can only be forwarded to a single person. Meanwhile, some U.S. hospitals are monitoring staff comments and discussions on social media platforms. Germany’s public health authorities have partnered with Thryve, a healthtech startup, to launch a smart-watch app to track the spread of the virus. And Scruff, a gay dating app, wants nothing to do with location tracking. 

Briefly: 

  • Airbnb has raised US$1 billion in debt and equity securities from Silver Lake and Sixth Street Partners. The company has been hit hard by the pandemic: last week, the Financial Times reported it had lowered its internal valuation to US$26 billion. 
  • WeWork tenants are terminating their leases or refusing to pay rent; the company’s occupancy rate fell to about 64 per cent at the start of April, down from 79 per cent at the end of September 2019.
  • Boston-based restaurant point-of-sale technology company Toast reportedly laid off “hundreds” of staff Tuesday; Alex Barrotti, CEO of Canadian competitor TouchBistro, recently told The Logic he thought his company was much leaner; it’s frozen hiring, but has not cut staff.
  • U.S. employers cut 19,000 information technology jobs in March. 
  • Nissan has furloughed 10,000 U.S. factory workers, the majority without pay.
  • Samsung has projected a 2.7 per cent increase in first-quarter operating profit, even as the company has had to shut down factories and retail stores amid the pandemic. 
  • 23andMe, the direct-to-consumer genetics-testing company, is launching a study to examine whether genes affect the severity of a coronavirus patient’s condition.
  • Mergers and acquisitions are down more than a third in 2020 to their lowest level since 2014, and cancelled deals outnumbering new ones that have been announced in the last seven days. 
  • Martin Shkreli, a biotech entrepreneur who is currently serving a seven-year sentence for securities fraud, is asking for a three-month furlough from jail to help find a cure for the virus, saying he is “one of the few executives experienced in ALL aspects of drug development from molecule creation and hypothesis generation.”
  • Tushy, a bidet startup, is scaling up rapidly as business explodes. 

Around the world: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in “good spirits” and breathing without assistance after being admitted to intensive care Monday for COVID-19 treatment. Wuhan, the city in China where the coronavirus outbreak began, has lifted its 76-day lockdown. More than 80 bullet trains are on standby at Wuhan’s three train stations, according to the People’s Daily, an organ of the Communist Party of China. China reported no coronavirus deaths today for the first time since it started publishing daily figures in January. In the course of 10 days of strict lockdown measures, New Zealand may have already flattened its curve; the country has demoted its health minister for breaching lockdown rules by driving his family to a beach 20 kilometres from his home. (“I’ve been an idiot,” he said.) Italy is also looking at easing its shutdown by mid-April, while Finland will begin randomly testing its citizens. Thousands of Venezuelan migrant workers have lost their jobs in Colombia; some are heading home on foot. Africa now has over 10,000 COVID-19 cases. Six-hundred Iranians have died, with 3,000 poisoned across the country, by tainted alcohol on the mistaken assumption that alcohol could help ward off the coronavirus. A New York cathedral is turning into a field hospital. A girls’ robotics team from Afghanistan, aged between 14 and 17 years old, has designed a US$300 ventilator that runs off a Toyota Corolla motor. A shipment of 50,000 medical suits heading to Malta has been stolen from a Turkish shipping warehouse; officials suspect the protective gear has been sold on a new global black market for COVID-19 medical supplies. “It’s like trying to grab a bar of soap. We order supplies, they are in our grasp, and then they just keep slipping out of our hands before we get them here,” said one official. Mafia groups are planning for post-pandemic success.  

A virtual graduation: Students at Tokyo’s Business Breakthrough University attended convocation via remote-controlled robot, each dressed in a traditional black gown with iPads showing its student’s face.

* We’re now emphasizing new cases, rather than running totals, because “flattening the curve” is when each day’s new cases are fewer than those of the previous day. The percentage increase is determined based on how today’s cases compare to a rolling three-day prior average. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.

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