To encourage production, the US government is promising to buy all excess coronavirus masks

Manufacturers are concerned about getting stuck with excess supply.
Manufacturers are concerned about getting stuck with excess supply.
Image: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
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The US government is promising to buy all leftover face masks and respirators manufacturers may have on hand once the coronavirus scare subsides and demand for them dries up, Quartz has learned.

Last week, a pre-solicitation issued to suppliers by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) laid out its intention to procure up to 500 million N95 respirators and face masks over the next 18 months for its Strategic National Stockpile. HSS says the masks and respirators will be used to protect healthcare workers and first responders from airborne pathogens, which is “essential to maintaining resilience of the US healthcare system.”

But manufacturers have long warned that US face mask production wasn’t robust enough to keep up with demand in the event of a pandemic. Companies are already struggling to meet demand, which is reportedly outpacing supply. As of a few days ago, the US had roughly 30 million masks on hand.

In an attempt to get mask-makers to increase their output, HHS says it will make sure producers don’t get stuck with huge amounts of inventory once the scare is over. A 3M facility in South Dakota is now turning out face masks seven days a week.

“This purchase will encourage manufacturers to ramp up production of the personal protective equipment now with the guarantee that they will not be left with excess supplies if private sector orders are cancelled once the Covid-19 response subsides,” Stephanie Bialek, an official at HHS, told Quartz.

The Strategic National Stockpile is made up of vitally important pharmaceuticals, vaccines, antidotes, and other emergency supplies kept in “strategic locations around the nation.”

“In an emergency, the SNS can send these products to areas in need as requested by state health officials,” Bialek said.

The Trump administration has asked Congress for $2.5 billion in funding to mount a coronavirus response, which reportedly includes the development of a vaccine. Still, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say this will fall far short of what’s required.

Coronavirus, which was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, has infected nearly 90,000 people across 58 countries, and the death toll has now surpassed 3,000. There are now 87 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US.