At the beginning of the pandemic there was a frantic search by governments, companies, and individuals to get medical grade masks, specifically N95s. This culminated in federal-state standoffs, NFL teams flying in masks, and the Mossad.
Writing this almost a year later the mask shortage still hasn't ended., with reports of hospitals having difficulty securing enough masks.
Searching on Amazon I can buy KN95s (the KN is the Chinese certification for filtering 95% of airborne particles) for $25 which are similar to the N95 but have looser headband straps, trading off a tighter seal for more comfort.
Why are there not enough masks? They aren't that complicated to build, even at a high grade - several manufacturers discuss how quickly they could change their manufacturing lines to create masks. The Washington Post article suggests uncertainty about future demand are limiting investment in mask manufacturing. When the pandemic ends mask demand will be reduced - thank god - and investments in specialized equipment to make medical grade masks won't pay off.
This seems plausible to me, and the suggestions of a buying guarantee from the US government are absolutely correct. Offer a minimum purchase guarantee such that manufacturers will recoup capital investment no matter what, that way it's all upside and there's more investment. It's the same idea as with the vaccines, and just like in that case we're being penny wise and pound foolish not to offer larger upfront guarantees.
However, I'm suspicious that constraints on the supply side are actually to blame.
Possible reasons for supply issues:
- Shortage of raw materials. N95s require nonwoven polypropylene, and a Wall Street Journal article from the beginning of the pandemic noted a global shortage. While repurposing manufacturing lines for masks might be easy, maybe the materials needed as inputs are much harder.
- Regulatory barriers: Like any area under the purview of the bureaucrats in the FDA, new mask manufacturers need to be approved. In May 2020 the FDA loosened some of their guidelines, but if I were a betting man there are probably many roadblocks still in the way of new companies from entering the space.