Vitalis Extraction’s COVID-19 conundrum

Published on May 27, 2020 by David Wylie

As COVID-19 began to spread globally, a Kelowna manufacturing company had a difficult decision to make.

Vitalis Extraction Technology manufactures industrial-scale equipment used around the world in the process of extracting cannabis to make products for both the medical and recreational markets. Those products include edibles, vapes, oils and sprays.

The company’s unique manufacturing specialization means Vitalis is the only company between Calgary and Vancouver that is certified to weld pressure vessels, expertise needed in the production of ventilators.

“We looked at tooling up to make ventilators,” Vitalis chairman and company co-founder Joel Sherlock says in a recent interview.

It was a difficult decision that had no precedent, he says.

The novel coronavirus can cause a range of breathing problems, from mild to deadly. In the most critical cases, ventilators offer the best chance of survival by taking over the body’s breathing process.

As the virus infected an increasing number of people in New York, the city faced a severe shortage of the life-saving machines. People were dying at such a high rate from COVID-19 that hospitals were forced to store bodies in refrigerated trucks. Other places hit hard by the pandemic, such as Italy, were also having to decide who should be hooked up to the potentially life-saving machines – and who should not.

Seeing the shortage, Vitalis spoke to experts about their options. They had to weigh numerous factors, including whether other manufacturers could keep pace with demand, whether the U.S. would take an America-first approach to their production, and what effect sacrificing Vitalis’ manufacturing capacity would have on the supply of medical products.

The company decided (at least for the time being) not to revamp their operation for ventilator production.

“The demand from our clients for their product was so great that we weren’t able to turn any production capacity over — or we may do so the at the peril of some medical patients, and of course some recreational users as well,” says Sherlock.

“This is the first global pandemic I’ve personally been through. We made the decisions as best we could.”

In the meantime, Vitalis has moved forward on research and development, and has been welding prototype ideas. Sherlock says they have four new technologies that are further steps down extraction and isolation side, including increased automation.

“It’s afforded us the opportunity to slow down and really focus on our process.”

The pandemic has affected all employees at the company in some way, but Sherlock says the strong company culture has helped them get through so far.

Sherlock himself has seen a significant lifestyle change. As a top Vitalis advocate, he has seen his busy travel life come to an abrupt halt. He’s been spending much more time at home than deepening global business connections.

“I’m usually on the road for about 220 to 250 days a year,” he says. “It was so crazy and so busy and now all of a sudden I’m home. I miss it, but I’m getting so much done now around the house!”

Photo credit: Instagram/@VitalisET