LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Gov. Andy Beshear wants multinational company 3M to release its patent for the N95 respirator — a desperately needed type of protective gear that's difficult to get during the coronavirus pandemic — so that more manufacturers can start making it.
Beshear spoke pointedly about 3M on Wednesday evening as he described the challenges of obtaining personal protective equipment such as N95s, surgical masks, gowns and gloves. These supplies, called PPE for short, protect doctors, nurses and other health care workers from COVID-19 as they treat patients.
President Donald Trump also criticized 3M this week and decided to invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure the federal government acquires more N95s.
"We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks. 'P Act' all the way," Trump tweeted Thursday night. "Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing — will have a big price to pay!"
Trump did not provide any further details on Twitter about what he meant.
The N95 is considered top-of-the-line face protection for the professionals on the front lines of this pandemic, but Beshear said it's been especially hard to procure.
"The procurement is incredibly difficult, as is the manufacture because it’s under patent. I’d like to see the people with that patent, which is 3M, provide that to the nation under a license for this period of time," the governor said.
"I believe it’s their patriotic duty, and they should put it out there so everybody else can manufacture it," he said of 3M. "That hasn’t happened."
As of late Friday afternoon, 3M — which has a manufacturing plant in Cynthiana, Kentucky, where two employees tested positive for COVID-19 last month — had not responded to a request for comment The Courier Journal sent Thursday.
3M announced Friday that the president's administration is requiring it to prioritize the Federal Emergency Management Agency's orders for N95 respirators and indicated it has been working closely with the federal government to do so.
3M also indicated it would increase the number of N95s it imports from its overseas operations, as Trump's administration asked it to do.
However, the company raised concerns about the administration's request that it stop exporting respirators it manufactures in the U.S. to Canada and Latin America, citing "significant humanitarian implications" because it's a critical supplier in those regions.
"In addition, ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done," 3M said. "If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease."
3M isn't the only company that makes N95s, but it's one of the major domestic manufacturers.
Bloomberg recently reported that "hundreds of patents on things related to N95 respirators" exist and said the owners of such patents include 3M, the U.S. government and universities.
Earlier this week, before Trump moved to use the Defense Production Act on 3M, the company's chairman and CEO, Mike Roman, issued an update on the company's response to COVID-19 and the spiking demand for its N95 respirators.
Roman said 3M "ramped up to maximum production" of N95s and doubled its global output to 100 million per month, including 35 million per month in the U.S.
"We’ve already put into motion additional investments and actions that will enable us to double our capacity once again, to 2 billion globally within the next 12 months — and some of that additional capacity will begin to come online in the next 60-90 days," Roman said.
"In the United States, we expect to be producing N95 respirators at a rate of 50 million per month in June, a 40% increase from current levels," he added.
"This is not just a 3M challenge; it’s an industry-wide challenge," Roman said. "Even with 3M’s accelerated production combined with capacity from other manufacturers, the reality is that demand for N95 respirators is much higher than the industries’ ability to deliver."
Premier, a group purchasing company that many hospitals rely on for supply needs, conducted a survey last month that found 23% of the health systems that responded are burning through N95s at a rate of more than 100 per day, with many of them holding an inventory of less than 10 days' worth of these masks.
Beshear said increasing the manufacturing of medical supplies is one part of a three-pronged approach Kentucky's state government is pursuing to address the shortage of N95s and other PPE supplies that's affecting states across the U.S.
The other two parts of Kentucky's strategy are:
- Gathering donated safety gear from individuals, businesses and other groups
- Procurement, through which the state tries to purchase PPE from suppliers
In terms of donations, Beshear said the state mainly has received industrial N95 respirators rather than medical ones. "They're not as good, but we will take everything we can," he said Wednesday during his daily press conference.
Buying N95s and other medical supplies has been tough because the market is hypercompetitive right now. The race for resources has pitted state governments against one another, against the U.S. government and against other countries.
Beshear indicated the state is fighting to get as much PPE as it can and said it's "scrapping for it every day."
"I want the very best for our people. I want to have everything that we could need for them," he said. "I know that every day that we can’t get it, that we’re putting people’s safety on the line."