What We’ve Learned So Far about the N95 Mask Crisis

Devika Daga
Apr 1, 2020 · 4 min read

Project N95 was formed 12 days ago to help coordinate the desperate search for personal protective equipment (also known as PPE) by nurses, doctors, fire departments, and others on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis.

We’re a national clearinghouse: on our website, hospitals and others report what supplies they need, and suppliers indicate what supplies they have — including masks, gowns, gloves, even ventilators. We’re coordinating with manufacturers and suppliers across the globe. As far as we can tell, this kind of database doesn’t exist anywhere else.

We’ve learned a lot in 12 days — especially about what’s happening with the supply chain. Hospitals, journalists, and citizens have been asking, “Where are the masks??” We’re beginning to get some answers. Here’s what we know so far from the hospitals, suppliers, manufacturers, and policymakers that we’re hearing from directly.

First, the supply chain that served hospitals well in the past has broken down. For years, many hospitals bought supplies from the same suppliers. And for years, those suppliers relied on the same manufacturers. Trusted relationships were formed. Now the system isn’t working; suppliers and manufacturers are out of stock and flooded with requests. So hospitals have to find new sources of PPE, right when thousands of other hospitals are frantically doing the same thing. And once they do, they need to negotiate new agreements and payment terms — often with completely unknown suppliers sourcing PPE from known and unknown factories. As one person searching for hospital supplies put it, “It’s like the Wild West out there.”

Second, N95 masks, which offer extra protection, are particularly hard to procure right now because they’re almost entirely made in China, and trusted large-scale Chinese manufacturers like 3M are supplying China and other Asian countries battling their own pandemics. Often, the masks that U.S. hospitals are able to buy from them are “leakage” — extra supplies sold through side businesses that have launched to meet the rising demand. That’s not sufficient for the enormous need we have in the U.S.

Third, there’s a technical issue holding things up. The Chinese equivalent of N95 masks are called KN95s. They’re authorized by the CDC, but they aren’t yet authorized by the FDA for emergency use. That may change; those authorizations are updated regularly. But for now, U.S. hospitals following FDA rules — nearly all of them — aren’t buying KN95s, which means the pool of suitable masks is even smaller.

Fourth, there’s the issue of scams. This is a real problem. We’re seeing that firsthand on our platform.

Here’s some additional context. For the most part, established suppliers and distributors that have been in this business for years aren’t coming to our website. They have existing relationships with hospitals; they don’t need our help finding buyers. Instead, Project N95 is dealing with suppliers who fall into roughly two categories: U.S.-based import/export businesses that are entering into PPE-supply for the first time, and know what they don’t know and are trying hard to perform due diligence on the new suppliers they’re working with in China… and ones that don’t. Meanwhile, the factories they’re working with in China run the gamut — some are large, some are small, some are real, and some are scams.

This is why validating suppliers and manufacturers is so important. That’s a huge emphasis for us at Project N95. Hospitals’ procurement teams are just not equipped to investigate whether the manufacturers that their suppliers are relying on are legitimate — especially right now when they’re caring for so many sick patients. We don’t want them to pay for an expensive and badly needed shipment, then open the boxes and realize they’ve been robbed.

Here’s what Project N95 is doing to validate suppliers and manufacturers — and to spot the fakes.

  • We’re looking for legitimate suppliers of N95 masks. Some of those masks may come from smaller manufacturers that haven’t been integrated into U.S. supply chains yet. The trouble is, we don’t have people on the ground in China who can, say, do a spot check of the factory. So we investigate manufacturers as best we can from here. We check FDA certificates, ask for references from customers or suppliers they already have trusted relationships with, etc. Then we investigate the suppliers, to establish that they are indeed legitimate businesses. Finally, we investigate whether those suppliers actually have relationships with legitimate manufacturers — because sometimes the suppliers are real but they’re getting duped on the other end. Again, this is all pretty complicated, especially without in-person inspections.
  • We’re looking for suppliers who can fulfill an order end-to-end for buyers — and who can work on escrow whenever possible. Escrow adds another layer of protection for the buyer because the money isn’t released until the order has been successfully completed. And if it’s a first-time supplier, we ask for proof of a successful first order.
  • We’re sharing information with the FDA and other government agencies. Specifically, we’re keeping them updated about what we know about the availability of KN95 masks, as they make a decision about whether to add them to their approved list.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a lot of fights wrapped into one. The hunt for accurate information is one of those fights. Hospitals trying to find PPE can feel like they’re fumbling in the dark. It’s a global marketplace that’s changing rapidly and demand is high. Project N95 aims to shine light on the problem by gathering data, helping investigate suppliers and manufacturers, and keeping everyone up-to-date as the situation unfolds — so the heroes working on the frontline can stay as safe as possible while they care for the rest of us.

Project N95

We open up access to vetted, quality PPE and COVID-19 tests.

Devika Daga

Written by

devikadaga.com • Soon: @digidems for @mtdems • Formerly: @google @googleafrica @DiscoverElement #obama08 • Brooklyn, NY

Project N95

Project N95 is the National Clearinghouse for critical personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 tests and medical supplies.

Devika Daga

Written by

devikadaga.com • Soon: @digidems for @mtdems • Formerly: @google @googleafrica @DiscoverElement #obama08 • Brooklyn, NY

Project N95

Project N95 is the National Clearinghouse for critical personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 tests and medical supplies.

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