US badly needs masks, but reluctant to get N95 alternative from China

China responded by saying it doesn't know the reason behind the U.S. rejecting KN95 masks.

Kayla Wong | April 02, 2020, 02:17 AM

The United States is facing a mask shortage at the moment after getting caught in the fast-spreading Covid-19 pandemic.

The rising number of Covid-19 cases in the country makes the problem an acute one.

As of Tuesday, March 31, the U.S. has reported a total of 163,539 infections, and 2,860 deaths.

The country has even overtaken China with the most number of reported cases on March 27.

Medical workers severely lack masks & other protective gear

Healthcare professionals working on the frontline, overwhelmed with the rising number of Covid-19 cases across the country, have resorted to reusing protective gear such as masks and eye masks, Vox reported.

Some have even turned to makeshift equipment to replace masks and protective suits.

A nurse who works in the city of Chicago was also pushed to the brink after she was forced to make a decision between working mask-less -- her hospital did not allow staff to wear their own masks -- and not working at all.

She eventually chose the latter for her own safety.

The situation is so bad a doctor in New Jersey said going to work now is like sending "lambs to the slaughterhouse".

Refuses to import readily-available alternative from China

Despite the drastic lack of masks, the U.S. federal government has refused to import an alternative to the N95 masks that is in abundance -- the KN95 masks, which are largely manufactured in China.

The KN95 functions like the N95 mask, and is said by the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be as effective as the latter.

The CDC has also listed the KN95 mask as one of the "suitable alternatives" when it comes to providing protection during the Covid-19 response when "supplies are short".

However, KN95 masks cannot be legally imported by American hospitals as they are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

And in spite of the pressing need for masks, the FDA had failed to include KN95 masks from China in an emergency authorisation for non-N95 masks, BuzzFeed News pointed out.

Other alternatives from countries and regions, such as Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, were approved instead.

People fundraising to get masks to hospitals

But mask importers are at work to get KN95 masks to hospitals as donations, which are accepted.

To do this, fundraisers and volunteer organisations navigate "a newly formed unofficial grey market", Vox reported.

The U.S. has also accepted donations of N95 masks, gloves, gowns, and other medical supplies from China, The New York Times reported.

The supplies, however, will barely meet the need of what American hospitals need.

China responds

China has responded to the FDA's rejection of China-made KN95 masks.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on Wednesday, April 1, that while the certification standards of medical supplies can vary across countries, it should not be stopping them from cooperating to fight against the viral outbreak, Xinhua reported.

She also said she does not know why the U.S. had chosen to reject the masks.

Previously, in a pointed remark made by another Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, on March 20, China had also suggested for others not to use "made in China" masks should they believe China-made goods are contaminated with the virus.

The comment was likely referring to China's ability to manufacture the masks that the U.S. currently needs.

U.S.-China tensions continuing

The U.S. and China could not be any more different now in terms of where they stand with regards to the pandemic.

While China is now in a position to help others, with Chinese President Xi Jinping recently pushing for a “health silk road”, U.S. President Donald Trump is under pressure domestically for his perceived mishandling of the crisis.

Critics said his response to the viral outbreak was slow and dismissive.

He was also slammed for sending medical supplies to China in early February, in a sign of a lack of preparation for the pandemic that was to come.

And while Trump had stopped using the term "Chinese virus", and spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping on the phone, indicating a deescalation of tensions between the two major countries, his administration had kept up the hostility towards China.

For instance, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had accused China of spreading disinformation about the pandemic, avoiding responsibility and confusing the world about the originator of the virus.

Top image by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images