Friday, April 3, 2020

The Long, Hard Climb To Increasing N95 Mask Availability

The calls to get President Trump to use the Defense Production Act to force manufacturers to make more ventilators, and more protective clothing for medical personnel (and others) have increased over time, viz.:
Etc., etc., etc. It seems pretty commonplace that it's just assumed that commanding such a thing will make it so, as Sarah Silverman:

Of course, the obvious rejoinders to this are that
  1.  The T-shirt manufacturers have a week (at least) to churn those out, and
  2. N95 manufacturers (and consumers) have to deal with the FDA.
The exact reasons for commanding N95 masks to exist are, at the moment, fairly obvious:
 But as ever, it's easier said than done. The Canadians, rightly fearing today's announcement of a US export ban, have struck out on their own to manufacture a domestic N95 mask. Only trouble is, virtually the entire supply chain is beyond their grasp as well. "[I]n just over two weeks, the McMaster project quickly evolved from establishing a manufacturing method for surgical and more sophisticated N95 masks to building an entire supply chain from the bottom up."
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.

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 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.
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.

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.
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:
“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.

Who Eats Dogs? Don't Say "Chinese A**holes" Or Facebook Censors You

So, this happened in a private Facebook group yesterday. To the question, "Who eats dogs?" I provided this response, and then the Overton window slammed shut on my keyboard:

Yes, it's now the case that Facebook has decided that discussions of Chinese eating habits — the proximate origin of the COVID-19 virus — are off-limits. This is, to put it mildly, insane. "Respectful" means we can't swear? The hell, Zuck. This is part of a general campaign Facebook appears to have started five years ago (at least) in which they decided to purge content the Chinese Communist Party wanted silenced, including video of Tibetan monks self-immolating to protest CCP repression.