The Global Fight for Respirators

Donald Trump is redirecting shipments and banning exports of personal protective equipment as his government faces particularly dramatic circumstances.

The White House has reacted to the severe shortage of face masks used to protect medical staff by banning exports and pursuing an aggressive purchasing strategy, showing no consideration for allies. France and Germany have accused the U.S. government of diverting shipments of protective equipment for nurses and doctors from Asia to the United States.

Germany’s Interior Minister Andreas Geisel confirmed that 200,000 respirators bound for Germany for use by the police force and hospital staff in Berlin had been redirected in Bangkok to the United States. The minister spoke of it as an act of piracy. The certified FFP2 face masks had been ordered from the U.S. manufacturer 3M Co. and produced in factories in China. U.S. government sources denied the accusation; 3M had no knowledge of any orders placed by Berlin.

On the evening of Friday, April 3, President Donald Trump imposed an export ban on respirators and gloves, having previously instructed 3M to prioritize supplying the domestic market. Canadian President Justin Trudeau criticized the move, as 3M Co. is Canada’s main supplier of respirators.

Doctors Are Worried

The United States is, however, not the only country to take such drastic measures. Many countries have stopped exporting medical supplies at least temporarily, including China, the European Union and Germany.

The government in Washington is facing a dramatic situation. On April 4, one quarter of those who had tested positive for COVID-19 worldwide lived in the United States, which reported 280,000 cases at that time. Doctors and nurses from hospitals across the country are calling for help in response to a shortage of protective equipment, gloves and especially certified N95 respirators.

There is increasing fear that nurses and doctors may get ill themselves, meaning they would no longer be able to care for patients. Although the number of U.S. hospital staff who have contracted the virus has not yet been determined, horrifying statistics reported by Italy and Spain are causing an increasing sense of alarm.

Meanwhile, rhetoric from the White House is becoming increasingly warlike. The government’s explanation for the export restrictions and other measures taken to block trading began with the phrase, “America is at war against an invisible enemy.” The statement mainly denounced brokers, middlemen and warehouse owners who were hoarding important medical equipment and trying to sell it at a high price. Lawyers in many states have, in fact, filed complaints alleging price gouging.

Could Making a Respirator Patent Available Be an Option?

Mike Roman, 3m’s CEO, has denied Trump’s charges that the company was exporting respirators to the highest bidder at America’s expense, saying it was completely wrong to think that 3M would not be doing everything it could to help the U.S. Since January, 3M has doubled the number of respirators it produces in America, meaning that nearly 40 million face masks are being produced per month.

A small number of these masks – fewer than 10% – are exported to Canada and Latin America, he continued, to countries where 3M is often the only supplier of the life-saving protective equipment. 3M has a moral duty to help nurses and doctors in these countries, Roman went on to say. He also pointed out that the government in Beijing had approved shipments of 10 million respirators from the company’s factories in China, making 3M a net importer.

At worst, export restrictions could, in turn, result in a case where those countries affected would take retaliatory measures, which could even ultimately harm hospitals in America. Actually, the shortage of respirators in the U.S. has, at least in part, been caused by tight bureaucratic regulations. Until Friday, the use of face masks with the same filtering effect as the N95 masks was not permitted in hospitals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have now loosened regulations, allowing the use of certified KN95 masks as well, which are easier to source according to importers.

Here’s a further suggestion that could also help to ease tensions considerably if implemented. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear suggested that 3M could release its patent on the masks, so as to make it available to manufacturers across the world.

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