Global Mask Treasure Hunt Ensues Amid Rapid COVID-19 Spread

By Elena Delella, Associate Editor

As of April 7th, 2020, the number of confirmed coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases has risen to 1,280,000, while the global death toll has reached 72,780. COVID-19’s rapid spread has led to a global scramble for personal protective equipment (PPE). N-95 masks are one specific type of PPE that is hardest to find. These masks and other PPE are so difficult to obtain that the French are referring to the global race as “guerre des masques” – the war of the masks.

Countries are not the only opponents in this war. Individuals are also fighting to amass masks as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) begin to reevaluate their position on individual mask use in public. New research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found coughs can project liquid up to 6m away, while sneezes can reach up to 8m. These findings cast concern on what is an actual “safe distance” in the age of COVID-19. Additionally, this study could have implications on advice regarding daily mask use because in certain situations wearing masks, especially in poorly ventilated rooms, would reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. As of recently, the CDC recommends that Americans use non-medical grade cloth face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While the WHO is still considering whether to change its guidance on face mask use in public.

The United States (US) is accused of being the biggest offender in this war. Both French and German officials have accused the US of seizing masks intended for distribution to their countries and diverting their shipments to the US. Andreas Geisel, a senior state official in Berlin, has gone so far as alleging that the US is committing acts of “modern piracy.”

Geisel alleges that 200,000 3M respirator masks destined for Berlin were diverted by the US in Bangkok. 3M, which is a US-owned company, denies such diversion, stating that there is “no record of an order of respirators from China for Berlin,” let alone that those masks had been seized by the US. While in France two region presidents, Renaud Muselier and Jean Rottner, claim that American customers tried to divert medical supplies by paying up to four times the typical price. Muselier alleged that an order of supplies destined to France ended up going to the US when Americans purchased the order for cash. While Rottner alleges that Americans are arriving on airport tarmacs in China and paying three to four times more for orders the French already made. The US entity responsible for these suspected hijackings is currently unknown. Although, the US Embassy in France, said that the US Federal government was not responsible for purchasing masks scheduled for delivery to France from China.

In response to an extreme shortage of masks and other PPE, countries have begun hoarding PPE manufactured in their country. In March, the French government began seizing all masks produced in their country. For example, Valmay SAS, a French company, was blocked from delivering an order of PPE to the UK National Health Service, who is a regular customer of the company.

In comparison, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to address shortages of PPE in the US. A section in the DPA authorizes the president to control the production and distribution of scarce materials “essential to the national defense.” PPE equipment, which includes masks, was cited as essential to national defense in Trump’s executive order. Under the DPA the US government can prioritize the production of essential scarce goods, provide guaranteed loans or directly lend money to targeted industries, and if all else fails, the government has priority over other consumers to purchase firm’s products. The executive branch’s power under the DPA applies to US companies wherever they operate.

On May 2nd, President Trump employed his power under the DPA ordering Chad Wolf, Homeland Security Secretary, to “acquire, from any appropriate subsidiary or affiliate of 3M company, the number of N-95 respirators that the Administrator determines to be appropriate.” Additionally, Trump’s administration requested that 3M cease exporting masks made in the US to Canada and Latin America. Following the Trump administration’s request, 3M warned that stopping the exportation of respiratory masks could make the product less available in the US due to retaliation by other countries.

As countries and individuals scramble to secure PPE, the market for this equipment has become increasingly competitive. The market is so aggressive that countries are employing “wild west methods” to ensure that they come out on top. This competition is unlikely to end any time soon as countries around the globe begin to invoke DPA like policies. 

Anna Swanson, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, and Maggie Haberman, Trump Seeks to Block 3M Mask Exports and Grab Masks From Its Overseas Customers, The New York Times (Apr. 3, 2020), available athttps://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/03/us/politics/coronavirus-trump-3m-masks.html

Coronavirus (COIVD-19), World Health Organization (Apr. 8, 2020) available at https://who.sprinklr.com

Coronavirus: US Accused of ‘Piracy’ Over Mask ‘Confiscation,’ BBC, (Apr. 4, 2020), available athttps://www.bbc.com/news/world-52161995

David Welna, Trump Invokes a Cold War Relic, The Defense Production Act, For Coronavirus Shortages, NPR (Mar. 18, 2020), available at https://www.npr.org/2020/03/18/818069722/trump-invokes-a-cold-war-relic-the-defense-production-act-for-coronavirus-shorta

Kevin Breuniger, 3M Warns Trump: Halting Exports Under Defense Production Act Would Reduce Number of Masks Avaliable to US, CNBC (Apr. 3, 2020), available at https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/03/coronavirus-3m-tells-trump-halting-exports-would-reduce-number-of-masks.html

Tim Lister, Sebastian Shukla, and Fanny Bobille, Coronavirus Sparks a ‘War for Masks” in Desperate Global Scramble for Protection, CNN World (Apr. 5, 2020), available at https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/04/europe/coronavirus-masks-war-intl/index.html

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