- Vox: 3/18, 3/23, 3/25, 3/29
- New York Times: 3/20 (1), 3/20 (2), 3/22, 3/24, 3/27, 3/31, 4/3
- Washington Post: 3/19, 3/25, 3/27 (1), 3/27 (2), 3/27 (3), 3/28, 3/31
Of course, the obvious rejoinders to this are thatWe can pump out half a million SuperBowl tee shirts for the losing team but we can’t make masks for motherfucking healthcare workers risking their lives everyday?— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) April 3, 2020
- The T-shirt manufacturers have a week (at least) to churn those out, and
- N95 manufacturers (and consumers) have to deal with the FDA.
- Demand is exceeding high thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak.
- The national reserve stockpile was largely depleted during the H1N1 outbreak of 2009 and never refilled by either the Obama or Trump administrations.
- China was the source of much of the world's N95 masks, so when they banned exports, the rest of the world was devastated.
The biggest challenge: finding the basic material to make the masks. A proper N95 mask — the kind that can filter out droplets containing viruses such as COVID-19 — requires a unique material, specifically a “meltblown, non-woven polypropelene” with narrow fibre diameters and a specific pore size.So the core of the N95 mask needs a product that the Canadians can't make at the moment; every scrap made is already spoken for.
Any company that can make the fabric — there are manufacturers in China and the U.S. — has already been flooded with phone calls. Others are operating within countries, like South Korea, that have placed specific export bans on the material.
So in the meantime, the materials team has turned its attention to exploring whether other possible fabrics could be sourced and treated to perform as well.They seem to be optimistic about getting over this hump — they claim to be "very close" to getting a domestic surgical mask — but an N95 mask "will take more time". The expertise and equipment aren't easy to come by:
That requires testing — another key bottleneck in the process. Until recently, most masks were tested in the U.S., said Preston, and some cannot be tested in Canada at all. Though McMaster sent some initial prototypes to a facility in Utah — that lab is “no longer accepting international orders,” added Selvaganapathy.
“What this is is a brutal education in the reality of supply chains,” [Simon Evenett, University of St. Gallen professor of international trade and economic development] said. “That’s what policymakers are getting.”While we can expect 3M to add new capacity in addition to doubling its annual US production, and Honeywell and smaller players to expand or build out new factories, the larger of those at least have some of the necessary knowledge already on-staff. The team at McMaster University have no such experience. People like Silverman or the writers at the NYT and WaPo, who have most likely never trod a factory floor in their lives, believe in magic wands that don't exist.