A U.S. federal agency approved a new highly sought-after respirator mask made by Chinese automotive conglomerate BYD Co., paving the way for Washington and other states to complete orders totaling hundreds of millions of dollars and distribute the masks.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health approved BYD’s application for the N95 mask on Sunday, a spokeswoman for the federal agency told The Seattle Times on Monday.
The masks, which are designed to filter out tiny airborne particles, have been in high demand globally to protect against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Washington state’s Department of Enterprise Services (DES) had ordered 55 million of the N95 masks for $178 million but has been waiting for federal approval to complete the orders.
The scarcity of N95 masks early in the pandemic prompted Washington and other states to initially order a Chinese alternative known as the KN95, but officials later canceled orders due to problems with quality and fit.
“The state looks forward to use of these N95s, critically needed items for the respiratory protection of Washingtonians,” said Linda Kent, a DES spokeswoman. “Unfortunately, without a national system of production and procurement for PPE, all 50 states will continue to compete for crucial supplies,” she added, using a common shorthand for personal protective equipment.
A spokesman for BYD declined to comment Monday.
DES has purchased masks to help supplement health care organizations and first responders that haven’t been able to obtain enough on their own. The state distributes masks and other protective gear according to a priority list, starting with requests from hospitals and long-term care facilities that have confirmed COVID-19 cases.
BYD had also struck a nearly $1 billion deal with California that included N95 masks, contingent on the company winning federal approval. California Gov. Gavin Newsom hailed the approval in a statement Monday, calling the new supply of N95s “game-changing” developments that would “play a crucial role in our state’s public safety and reopening strategy.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had denied approval for the masks last month, saying the “design, manufacturing and quality inspection of the device was concerning.” BYD has said the masks passed the agency’s physical tests and that the denial was due to paperwork issues.