What are Manufacturers and Regulators Doing to Meet Growing Surgical Mask Demand?

The surgical mask market is one of many that is being impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Demand is high around the world…

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The surgical mask market is one of many that is being impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Demand is high around the world from both medical professionals and the general public. While the need is highest in the healthcare industry for the safety of both workers and patients, surgical masks can also provide some protection to the populace as they work and travel outside their homes. Unfortunately, because demand is so high, consumer purchasing and stockpiling has made it more difficult for medical institutions to acquire enough masks for their staff and patients, and in many countries those people who are the lowest risk are being asked not to purchase and use masks in order to reserve them for those who are most vulnerable.

Supply is so low that organizations such as the US FDA and Public Health England are relaxing the level of personal protective equipment (PPE) that hospital staff and other medical professionals need to wear. Supplies such as FFP3 masks and visors are particularly hard to come by, and are no longer recommended for staff in England. Many health care workers are concerned that this is insufficient protection to keep them and their patients safe.

Suggested reading: Coronavirus Outbreak Boosts the Sales of World’s Top 10 N95 Mask Manufacturers

Impact on the global surgical mask market

Surgical mask demand is clearly very high at the moment, as medical professionals need far more supplies than normal and consumers are purchasing masks in unprecedented numbers. The market is expected to grow by almost $2.5 billion over the next 5 years, with a third of that growth coming from Europe. The US will also be a key market during the pandemic as the country deals with high infection rates.

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Manufacturers step up production

Around the world, manufacturers across industries are stepping up to help meet demand. For example, pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is donating nine million surgical masks to healthcare workers around the world, with the first batch being sent to Italy where need is extremely high. The company has partnered with the World Economic Forum to determine which countries have the greatest need for masks and other assistance. AstraZeneca is manufacturing the surgical masks in China.

On the supply side of things, packaging manufacturer Berry Global has ramped up production to make materials for face masks, N95 respirators and other products essential to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The company has been closely monitoring its production capacity and adjusting it in order to prioritize the most needed supplies.

New companies enter the market

Organizations in related industries are also dedicating facilities and resources to help meet surgical mask demand. Luxury fashion retailer Burberry is making use of its global supply chain and funds to acquire and supply surgical masks and other supplies for medical staff and patients. The company is also retooling a trench coat factory in Yorkshire in order to make non-surgical gowns and masks for patients, as well as helping to fund COVID-19 vaccine research.

Other textile manufacturers are pitching in as well: Prada has devoted some of its facilities to the production of masks, with 200 workers producing 10,000 masks a day, and Gucci is working with its supply chain to produce over 1 million surgical masks over the course of a few weeks. Giorgio Armani, Inditex, and other companies are also converting factories to produce masks.

Those that don’t have the facilities and authorization to produce medical-grade masks are still finding ways to help by putting out masks or mask patterns for the general public to use. While these may not be approved to use in hospital settings (except in emergencies), they still benefit healthcare workers by providing masks to consumers, giving them some amount of protection and allowing a greater number of certified surgical masks to reach the people who need them the most. It’s also an opportunity for textile manufacturers to enter the market despite not being set up to produce medical supplies.

Innovators look for alternative solutions

The global surgical mask shortage is also fostering creativity across industries as people look for ways to extend the lifespan of their PPE and to quickly produce more components during the coronavirus pandemic. While normal practice is for healthcare professionals to use a new N95 mask for each patient they visit, some are now abandoning that due to their limited supply. A small study in Singapore found that masks, goggles, and shoes of hospital workers weren’t carrying viral genetic material and suggested it could be safe to reuse them.

Other researchers have been looking for ways to decontaminate surgical masks and other equipment. One suggested practice is to let masks “rest” for long enough that the virus dies off, rotating through a series of masks to allow used ones to become virus-free. Other researchers are investigating heat, chemical disinfectants, and UV light as ways to sterilize surgical masks. A few minutes in UV light appears to effectively disinfect masks, but it is currently unclear whether this treatment can damage the masks.

People are also investigating alternatives to surgical masks. 3D printers can produce clear plastic face shields, which can protect workers’ eyes and extend the life of surgical masks by limiting exposure to viral particles. These are much easier for individuals and small businesses to produce, allowing them to help alleviate the surgical mask shortage. Scuba masks are also being considered as alternatives, as they protect the face, can be sterilized, and can be fitted with a filter.

Suggested reading: How Companies are Finding Creative Solutions to the Medical Ventilators Shortage

Counterfeits pose risks to purchasers and suppliers

Unfortunately, some manufacturers are taking advantage of the shortage in a much more harmful way: fake masks are beginning to flood the market. Driven by collapsing demand due to the coronavirus, textile manufacturers in countries such as Turkey, China, and India have begun producing imitations of brand-name masks, going so far as to forge certification stamps and documents. While these masks may be more effective than having no masks at all, they are frequently made in unsanitary conditions and not made to the appropriate standards, which can put medical practitioners and patients at risk if they believe they are working with proper equipment. The masks also have the potential to take business away from suppliers who do have the proper procedures and certifications, and cause confusion in the market.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges and opportunities for the market, with manufacturers around the world reconfiguring their facilities to produce more surgical masks and other protective equipment, and researchers working hard to develop new products and technologies to advance the industry. There are many different ways to contribute to the market right now, even for companies who would not typically be a part of it. However, organizations also need to be aware of regulatory requirements for surgical masks and other PPE, and buyers need to be on the lookout for counterfeit products.

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