A rapid pandemic response to keep communities safe

The onset of the global health crisis in the spring of 2020 — with ongoing shortages in critical medical and protective equipment — has underscored the need for innovative solutions.  

Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, Niagara’s local health system faced a startling shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and reached out to Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division for a rapid response for the essential health equipment. 

Researchers at the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) promptly engineered a face shield prototype using computer-aided design and received certification by Health Canada for a Medical Device Establishment Licence (MDEL Class1).  

The team at WAMIC, and with help from R&I’s administrative staff, spent long hours assembling hundreds of face shields each day, and delivering them to frontline workers at Niagara Health. 

In all, the team produced 37,300 face shields for essential healthcare staff locally and other community members throughout the province. 

“The Research & Innovation division at Niagara College provided invaluable services at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when PPE inventories were running low, and the supply chains were disrupted,” said Amir Gill, director of Capital Planning, Engineering Services, and Biomedical Engineering for Niagara Health. “I would term their efforts heroic, and they definitely helped Niagara Health keep our patients, staff, and visitors safe.”

The face shield project was funded by the Niagara College-led Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI)  through Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) contributions. In fact, all seven of SONAMI’s academic partners took action to combat the health crisis, working on dozens of COVID-19-related research projects, including PPE, manufacturing of a medical device prototype, a ventilator prototype, a portable air filtration system and exciting research in the treatment for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. 


At the forefront of innovative technologies 

The global pandemic has highlighted the need for rapid, inclusive response to public health emergencies. As a result, following the initial PPE project, the WAMIC team went on to partner with industry partners to help in the fight against the coronavirus. 

During a collaboration with McMaster University, researchers at WAMIC reverse-engineered and created a parametric CAD model of a video laryngoscope sheath to prepare for potential supply-chain interruptions at Hamilton Health Sciences. Laryngoscopes are needed for the intubation procedure for patients requiring assisted ventilation.  

“We can see how we’ve all joined forces to tackle the challenges of the day,” said Marc Nantel, PhD, vice president, Research & External Relations at Niagara College. Innovative technologies to address the coronavirus arrived in record time, and more locally, we’ve seen our community, stakeholders and industry partners, come together to help each other.”  

One industry partner in particular engaged with the Research & Innovation division during in order to advance its technology of utilizing ultra-violet (UV)-C radiation as industrial disinfection to help kill viruses like SARS-Cov-2. Brilliant Photonics sought the expert help from WAMIC engineers to help reduce manufacturing costs and complexity. 

The College was also awarded a grant of close to $50,000 for the purchase of a biomedically compatible 3D printer for the WAMIC labs in the R&I division to continue COVID-19-related research. 

Previously, WAMIC’s lab capability in this area has been limited to Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) 3D printers, which are not intended for biomedical material. With this specific equipment, research and development projects pertaining to the coronavirus could proceed with the necessary biocompatible and liquid-tight parameters. 

“The research infrastructure funded by CFI will expand Niagara College’s capacity to serve a wider array of people in need of specialized protection, testing and life-saving medical assistance,” said Nantel at the time.  

Research & Innovation’s activities are in addition to a college-wide effort. In early April, NC donated 30,000 personal protective items, collected from a number of different program areas, to the Niagara Health Foundation. 

As well, the NC Teaching Distillery – with help from NC’s Teaching Winery and Teaching Brewery –utilized its stills to produce 1,700 bottles of hand sanitizer (instead of spirits) to help frontline workers and for distribution to local and province-wide charitable organizations.