Winnipeg-based companies are helping pioneer a new medical mask industry — one that is more protective against COVID-19 and environmentally friendly.
Humn Pharmaceuticals, based in Charleswood, is touting a Health Canada approved, copper-plated mask which it says kills COVID-19 particles in minutes.
Roughly 13 km east, Precision ADM Medical and Spirit Healthcare Group are pumping out millions of compostable medical masks, with plans to increase capacity to 40 million masks monthly — at that location alone.
Humn Pharmaceuticals has been tinkering with copper masks for over a year. However, they waited to put anything on the market until a clinical study at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, released findings the copper mask worked at significantly deactivating SARS-CoV-2.
"It’s a new innovation," said Tessa Hart, an account executive for Humn Pharmaceuticals.
The Manitoba company has partnered with two others in Australia and Europe. Humn Pharmaceuticals owns patent rights in North America for the design; Health Canada green lit it selling the surgical masks on Sept. 3.
"We don’t plan on going anywhere," Hart said.
Humn Pharmaceuticals plans to purchase a manufacturing warehouse in Winnipeg and will begin creating the masks in-house next year. The company currently imports from its European partner (whom Hart would not disclose) and has 150,000 units for distribution in its Calgary warehouse.
Around 20 to 25 people will be hired once Humn Pharmaceuticals finds a place and opens shop, according to Blair McInnes, the retailer’s founder and board chairman.
"Are masks going to be around after COVID? One hundred per cent," Hart said, adding the plant will likely produce the pharmaceutical’s creams and other products.
The company advertises an ultra-thin coating of 99 per cent copper atop a single layer mask. A typical life cycle is one day for health-care workers in a hospital and up to 30 days for casual users, Humn’s website says.
A single mask costs $4.99, while a stock of 30 cashes out at $105.
Michael Schmidt, a microbiology and immunology professor at the Medical University of South Carolina — who studies the use of copper in health-care settings — said it’s unknown whether copper-guarded masks are more protective than cloth or N95s.
However, copper does inactivate viruses, he said.
"(A virus is) not any more than a glorified Post-it note that gets inserted into our cells telling us to do things we don’t want to do," Schmidt said.
"The copper effectively, in combination with the oxygen that’s in our atmosphere, generates a molecular grenade… (which) then results in the inactivation of any number of viruses."
He assumed Health Canada wouldn’t have issued an approval if Humn’s product didn’t work, and he pointed to a 2011 study in PLOS One, a scientific journal, showing the effectiveness of copper masks destroying flu particles without compromising filtration.
"I think any opportunity we have to protect ourselves by adding another layer of protection (is good), and copper certainly is a good way of doing it," Schmidt said.
Vaccination remains the best protection, and social distancing is still necessary, he added.
Meanwhile, Precision ADM Medical is creating compostable, plant-based biopolymer masks. The company is supplying some to Spirit Healthcare Group; the partner organizations call themselves Spirit92.
"The mask looks, feels (and) works the same" as a traditional N95 mask, according to Jay Singh, Precision ADM Medical’s chief commercial officer.
Sugar-based materials are spun-bound in an Alberta factory before being shipped to a factory in Fort Garry to be converted into masks.
On Wednesday, the plant had capacity to make 10 million three-ply masks per month. By next March, the same plant will have a capacity of 40 million units monthly, Singh said.
Precision ADM Medical also has Ontario and Alberta factories. The three locations combined will assemble around 100 million masks per month come next spring, Singh said.
"It’s really been a challenge to sell into Canada — but to sell to the States, that’s a sweet deal," he said.
The 100 million quota is already sold out, largely by southern neighbours, Singh said, adding Manitoba’s government has been supportive.
Unlike traditional masks, which will form micro-plastics in landfills or release carbon through incineration, the biopolymer masks will be compostable or, at the very least, lock carbon in landfills, Singh said.
Large organizations who make the switch receive carbon offsets.
The Spirit92 partnership is "business to business reconciliation," Singh said.
It got its name from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action No. 92, which enlists the corporate sector to create long-term partnerships on economic development projects.
Spirit Healthcare Group, a tributary of Tribal Councils Investment Group, has been expanding its line of health-care products. It met Precision ADM Medical during the pandemic.
"They seemed to have an appetite to learn more and participate in economic reconciliation," said Heather Berthelette, the CEO of both Spirit Healthcare Group and Tribal Councils Investment Group.
"(They) seemed to have the same core beliefs that we did, a social and climate consciousness."
Tribal Councils Investment Group represents over 150,000 Indigenous people and seven Manitoban chiefs. The environment is important to each and every one, Berthelette said.
"This is Treaty 1 land. A lot of masks are going into the landfill," Berthelette said. "We’re really hoping that individuals… the government, the hospitals… will see the value in switching what they’re using right now to compostable material."
Spirit Healthcare Group has been providing financial services to management to an Indigenous worldview.
"Spirit92 really is a litmus test of what a good, true partnership means, and the value that both sides can bring to a table," Berthelette said.
Singh didn’t give an exact price for the compostable masks but said they were comparable to current mask prices.
He hopes to eventually produce a carbon negative product.
The first round of Spirit92’s masks ship Dec. 15, Berthelette said. People can order them at spirithealthcare.ca.
Humn Pharmaceutical’s masks are available at ca.humnpharma.com.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.