As a result of the spread of the coronavirus, we are facing a critical shortage of protective face masks for our doctors, nurses and first responders.
It is now estimated that the U.S. will require 1.7 to 3 billion masks in the coming months. Our current supply chain as it stands may be able to provide only a few million.
Up until now, the primary U.S. based supplier of the industry-standard N95 face mask has been 3M, which outsources all of its manufacturing to China, including producing the material and assembling the masks.
The N95 mask is made of a special “melt-blown” fabric and requires certain machinery to be produced. The machines are built in Germany.
Currently, there are only two of these machines in the United States: in New Hampshire and the University of North Carolina.
It is absolutely critical that all of the necessary resources in our nation be directed towards these machines to make as much of the melt-blown material as possible and then disseminate it to as many manufacturing facilities around the country as possible to ramp up U.S. production of the masks and help limit the spread of the virus.
But we need more than two machines producing this fabric. Getting German engineers to the U.S. to build the machines is one thing, but currently, the fastest estimate for building the machines is 12 weeks and transportation would be expected to take an additional 8 weeks.
That’s far too long.
As a former Air Mission Commander in the Special Operations community, I am aware of ways to expedite transportation for mission-critical assets and am confident that with government assistance we could have a fully operational manufacturing facility in the next 6-7 weeks.
This would, however, require extreme coordination between the Secretary of State, the FDA, and U.S.-based manufacturers to accomplish this goal. Not impossible, but certainly difficult.
However, we believe there is another solution as well, one that can be implemented far more quickly.
At Nine Line, we have begun production and testing of masks made of apparel fabric. The fabric is treated with anti-microbial solutions which could meet FDA certification for reducing the likelihood of transmission of the virus through respiratory droplets. The simple, flexible design would accommodate various face shapes and sizes. While not a surgical-grade mask, it could provide front-line defense for health care providers and first responders.
And we could produce as many 10 million masks per week.
Nine Line and our U.S. manufacturing partners like Bella Canvas are prepared to shift all operations to produce these masks, but WE NEED government support, as the time to validate FDA compliance is currently unknown. Independent tests are showing incredible results but FDA testing needs to be highly expedited.
I'm an engineer. I'm also a former Army officer. I'm also a member of the special operations community. I'm also the son of a man who will die if he contracts this. I'm also the son of a nurse. I'm also the father of children who could potentially die. I understand as much as anyone can how critically important it is to ensure the U.S. has the capability and resources to protect itself from the spread of the virus – without relying on the commercial benevolence of China. CHINA!
Government funding must not be limited to multibillion-dollar companies that are going to squander, take forever, and not share information or materials.
As an American, I know we can do this. Between 1941 and 1945, eighteen American shipyards built 2,710 Liberty ships, an average of three ships every two days.
But the government needs to do everything it can to unleash our innovation and production capability.
This has nothing to do with money. It’s about coming together as a nation, cutting through the red tape and doing what we need to survive and thrive.
CPT Tyler Merritt
CEO, Nine Line Apparel
Former Air Mission Commander 160th SOAR