COVID-19 crisis: US ‘stealing, seizing, diverting’ N95 masks meant for Europe
3M -- the US company that makes the masks -- has been prohibited from exporting its medical products to other countries under a Korean-War-era law invoked by President Donald Trump. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called Trump’s move a “mistake”.
As the US is struggling to the fight the coronavirus pandemic amid crippling shortage of personal protective gear for first-responders and front-line healthcare workers, as well as ventilators and other medical supplies, it has been accused of hijacking a plane full of lifesaving equipment, including 200,000 N95 masks intended for Germany. The move has been slammed as “modern piracy”.
The masks were diverted to the US as they were being transferred between planes in Thailand, reports say.
According to the local government in Berlin, the shipment of US-made masks was "confiscated" in Bangkok. The FFP2 masks were ordered by Berlin's police force did not reach their destination, said the government.
Andreas Geisel, the Interior Minister for Berlin state, described the diversion as “an act of modern piracy” and appealed to the German government to demand Washington conform to international trading rules.
“This is no way to treat trans-Atlantic partners,” Geisel said. “Even in times of global crisis there should be no wild west methods.”
According to German reports, the masks had been made by a Chinese producer for the US company 3M, but the firm issued a statement on Friday night saying: “3M has no evidence to suggest 3M products have been seized. 3M has no record of any order of respirators from China for the Berlin police. We cannot speculate where this report originated.”
3M has been prohibited from exporting its medical products to other countries under a Korean-War-era law invoked by President Donald Trump. The US has more than 270,000 recorded cases of Covid-19, the highest number in the world by a large margin, and over 7,000 deaths.
On Friday, Trump said he was using the Defence Production Act to demand that US firms provide more medical supplies to meet domestic demand.
"We need these items immediately for domestic use. We have to have them." He had earlier slammed 3M in a tweet:
We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks. “P Act” all the way. Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing - will have a big price to pay!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2020
Berlin’s Interior Minister "piracy" comments echoed the sentiments of other European officials, who have complained about the buying and diversion practices of the US, the BBC reported.
In France, regional leaders say they are struggling to secure medical supplies as American buyers outbid them. The President of the Île-de-France region, Valérie Pécresse, compared the scramble for masks to a "treasure hunt".
"I found a stock of masks that was available and Americans - I'm not talking about the American government - but Americans, outbid us," Pécresse said. "They offered three times the price and they proposed to pay up-front. I can’t do that. I’m spending taxpayers’ money and I can only pay on delivery having checked the quality,” she told BFMTV. “So we were caught out.”
The French media have started calling the rush for equipment “mask wars”.
In a separate development, 3M said the Trump administration had asked it to increase shipments to the US from its factories overseas, and it had secured agreement from China to ship 10 million masks from 3M plants. The company said that the administration also asked it to stop exporting US-made respirator masks to Canada and Latin America.
The company says it manufactures about 100 million N95 masks per month -- about a third are made in the US, and the rest produced overseas.
The company said the demand raises “significant humanitarian implications” from stopping shipments intended for healthcare workers, and warned it would backfire by triggering retaliation from other countries.
“If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the US would actually decrease,” the statement said. “That is the opposite of what we and the administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek.”
Canadian officials blasted the move by Trump. Calling the US President’s act a “mistake”, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned that America also imports medical supplies from Canada.
He said such a move could backfire, and he noted that Canadian healthcare professionals go to the United States to work in Detroit every day. Canada and the United States closed their common border to all non-essential traffic earlier this month.
Asked whether Canada would retaliate if the US blockade goes ahead, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa would "do whatever it takes to defend the national interest."
Ontario Premier Doug said on Friday he had spoken to US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer about the Trump administration move to block 3M exports of masks.
"The health and well-being of our frontline workers depend on these essential medical items and now more than ever our countries need to work together to combat COVID-19," Ford said on Twitter.