In the early days of the pandemic, the U.S. government turned down an offer to manufacture millions of N95 masks in America. What happened to “Made in America” and “America First”? On Jan. 22, a day after the first case of covid-19 was detected in the United States, Michael Bowen’s medical supply company, Prestige Ameritech, could ramp up production to make an additional 1.7 million N95 masks a week. He viewed the shrinking domestic production of medical masks as a national security issue, though, and he wanted to give the federal government first dibs.
“We still have four like-new N95 manufacturing lines,” Bowen wrote that day in an email to top administrators in the Department of Health and Human Services. “Reactivating these machines would be very difficult and very expensive but could be achieved in a dire situation.”
“We are the last major domestic mask company,” he wrote on Jan. 23. “My phones are ringing now, so I don’t ‘need’ government business. I’m just letting you know that I can help you preserve our infrastructure if things ever get really bad. I’m a patriot first, businessman second.”
“I don’t believe we as an government are anywhere near answering those questions for you yet,” Laura Wolf, director of the agency’s Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection, responded that same day. In the end, the government did not take Bowen up on his offer. Even now, production lines that could be making more than 7 million masks a month sit dormant.
Bowen’s overture was described briefly in an 89-page whistleblower complaint filed by Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Emails show Bright pressed agency leaders on the issue of mask shortages — and Bowen’s proposal specifically — to no avail. On Jan. 26, Bright wrote to a deputy that Bowen’s warnings “seem to be falling on deaf ears.”
That day, Bowen sent Bright a more direct warning.
“U.S. mask supply is at imminent risk,” he wrote. “Rick, I think we’re in deep shit,” he wrote a day later.
Within weeks, a shortage of masks was endangering health-care workers across the country, and the Trump administration was scrambling to buy more masks for many times the standard price.
Bowen often carried PowerPoint slides from a 2007 presentation by BARDA and its parent division at HHS, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. One had a table showing that, in the event of a pandemic, the country would need 5.3 billion N95 respirator masks, 50 times more than the number in the stockpile. The presentation concluded: “Industrial surge capacity of [respiratory protection devices] will not be able to meet need and supplies will be short during a pandemic.”