Industrial giant 3M has been working with law enforcement agencies around the clock to stop the sale of millions of counterfeit versions of its N95 mask.
“We have taken very strong steps to address counterfeiting or pricing issues. We have done so over the last year in this limited supply and very high demand for critical products like the N95,” said Mike Vale, 3M Security Officer heads and Industry Business Group, said CNBC.
N95 were the gold standard during the coronavirus pandemic for their ability to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. The masks, which are seen as critical for protecting frontline workers from Covid-19, were in short supply. 3M is the largest N95 manufacturer.
Federal agencies announced Wednesday that fraudsters had distributed millions of counterfeit N95s to healthcare workers in at least five states. So far, 3M has reported 11,000 cases of counterfeit masks, leading to 29 civil lawsuits. In total, the company said it had confiscated 10 million counterfeit N95s. In mid-January, 3M helped its home state of Minnesota avoid purchasing nearly 500,000 counterfeit N95s from a Florida company. 3M sued and won an injunction.
The news of the federal investigation into the counterfeit N95 comes when several hospitals in Washington state found their shipment of the masks contained counterfeit masks.
“It’s a breathtaking feeling … just to think that there are people … making the counterfeit personal protective equipment we need so badly right now during this pandemic,” Cassie Sauer, president of the Washington State Hospital Association, told NBC News earlier this week.
3M helped officials in Washington confirm that the counterfeit masks were purchased from an unauthorized dealer unrelated to the company. 3M advises that hospitals and medical clinics must verify that they are purchasing respiratory protective equipment from a verified, authorized dealer. One way to do this is to check the company’s website or call the anti-fraud hotline.
Despite concerted efforts to eliminate and hold fraudsters accountable, false masks continue to emerge in the US and around the world. “Counterfeit N95s pose a serious health risk and I think 3M has been reasonably aggressive to get them off the streets. However, it’s a get rid of each other game,” said Scott Davis, CEO of Melius Research, who followed the development of 3M for several years.
In terms of manufacturing, 3M manufactures more than 95 million respirators per month at its US facilities in South Dakota and Nebraska. By scaling production and hiring hundreds of additional employees, including 300 at its South Dakota facility, the company quadrupled production last year.
However, a number of doctors who spoke to CNBC said they are still rationing masks.
“Obtaining enough N95 to keep healthcare workers safe and secure, especially for the smaller hospitals and health care facilities, is an unresolved challenge. When we have to negotiate counterfeit products, it is even more difficult and impossible to get adequate protection for our front lines to ensure.” said Dr. Natasha Anushri Anandaraja, who founded Covid Courage, a New York nonprofit that helps healthcare workers gain access to PPE, including N95 and reusable masks.
Because of the limited supply, Anandaraja says more and more healthcare professionals are choosing reusable options. “By providing each health worker with their own reusable mask, the constant battle to find legitimate disposable masks will be eliminated and it will no longer be necessary for health workers to reuse single-use masks and hundreds of health systems saved thousands of dollars a year. “