Countries should stockpile PPE as if on a war footing, says face mask inventor

Nicola Smith
·4 min read
Peter Tsai holding up an N95 face mask - Peter Tsai
Peter Tsai holding up an N95 face mask - Peter Tsai

Governments should stockpile protective medical equipment to prepare for possible pandemics in the same way that they prioritise weapons purchases for potential future conflicts, says the inventor of the lifesaving N95 face mask. 

Dr Peter Tsai, 68, recommended the war-like footing after suddenly being pulled out of his short-lived retirement earlier this year as US healthcare workers rapidly ran out of the vital protective gear at the start of the pandemic. 

As the materials scientist who first patented the filtration material used in disposable N95 respirators in 1995, he found himself inundated with urgent requests to find ways to safely sterilise the equipment for re-use to help counter a critical global shortage.

Dr Tsai, who is originally from Taiwan and now lives in Tennessee, immediately sprang into action. 

“If we have the ability to do something then I would regret it if there was something I could do and did not do to save lives. This was an opportunity for me to do something for the community,” he told the Telegraph in an interview.  

The coveted tight-fitting masks are a frontline of defence for medics treating patients infected with the highly contagious Covid-19 as, unlike homemade masks or cloth covers, they filter out contaminants with an efficiency rate of more than 95 per cent, making them the most protective on the market. 

Coronavirus Live Tracker promo embed
Coronavirus Live Tracker promo embed

N95 masks are made in several layers, with the middle filtering layers made of polypropylene fibers with an embedded electrostatic charge. This charge can augment the mechanical filtering efficiency by as much as 10 to 20 times.

The technology was first invented by Dr Tsai in 1992 and revolutionised medical respirators when it was introduced as an industry standard in 1995, but this year the veteran scientist faced the fresh challenge of finding simple ways to sterilise the scarce equipment without compromising its efficiency. 

Dr Tsai discovered several methods after hours of trial and error, but his central finding lay in heating the masks at 70 degrees Celsuis for 60 minutes in dry heat from an industrial – not a home – oven. 

The hypothesis, which does not damage the filtration technology, was validated by the US National Institutes of Health. 

An even more basic method was “natural sterilisation” based on the length of time the virus lingers on different surfaces, he said, explaining: “After you use a respirator and leave it for four days then the virus already dies and you can reuse it.”

Dr Tsai also turned his unique skills to help laboratories quickly scale production of the masks.  

But he said longer term strategies were needed to prevent future shortages of critical personal protective equipment (PPE). 

The N95 is the most protective face mask and used by healthcare workers - Angus Mordant/Bloomberg
The N95 is the most protective face mask and used by healthcare workers - Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

“This pandemic came in a short time, and it spread very fast, so the regular production could not meet requirements. There was a huge gap and there has been a huge shortage of the respirators. This kind of industry is not profitable in the US or Europe so the majority of face mask makers are in China,” he said. 

Western countries could learn from how East Asia prepared for future pandemics after being hit badly by Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Dr Tsai added. 

Taiwan, for example, learned to “make to scale in a short time so they were well prepared and that makes a difference,” he said. 

But companies willing to invest in the equipment to mass produce PPE needed government support to overcome the lack of profit during periods of calm, argued Dr Tsai.  

“After a few months if the pandemic recedes, then the supply will be much more than the demand, then there is no profit and this industry cannot survive. Some need to be partially supported by the government and the government needs to have a stockpile for a period of time,” he said. 

Three fold masks stop about 90 per cent of the virus emitted from an infected individual - Ina Fassbender/AFP
Three fold masks stop about 90 per cent of the virus emitted from an infected individual - Ina Fassbender/AFP

“Weapons are not profitable. But they need to have the weapons and then they don’t use them for 10 or 20 years. You need to see this kind of PPE as military weapons.”

As for the culture war that appears to have engulfed the UK and the US over the need to wear a mask on daily basis, Dr Tsai attributed reluctance to the lack of public experience of previous infectious disease outbreaks like Sars and uncertainty at the start of the pandemic about the usefulness of masks. 

Data now showed that a regular and easily available “three-fold” mask trapped about 90 per cent of the virus emitted from an infected person. The mass wearing of masks would mean “transmission would be tremendously reduced,” he said. 

“People refuse to wear it, using an excuse like human rights or freedoms and this has nothing to do with freedom. If the death rate or the infection rate is high, we already know that masks can prevent the infection,” he said. “To wear a mask is to care for others, not to care for yourself.”

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