Unproven cleaning tech touted by Trump allows masks to be reused only 2-3 times and not 20 as claimed: Report
The Trump administration thinks a $600 million contract is justified for unproven mask-cleaning machines, according to reports. The manufacturer caught the attention of the President after it claimed its technology sanitizes N95 masks, allowing health workers to safely reuse them for up to 20 times.
Trump began endorsing the technology by the Ohio-based research organization called Battelle to address the shortage of facemasks. Following this, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it for emergency use in late March.
The technology is capable of decontaminating up to 80,000 masks each day, the company wrote on its website. But the machine has fallen short of expectations. Scientists and nurses told NBC News that the masks did not last 20 times as claimed. Instead, they began wearing out after two to three machine treatments. The nurses also raised another concern: Most masks stopped fitting correctly after just a few spins through the cleaning system.
One nurse thinks the administration may have viewed the technology as a shortcut to acquiring and manufacturing more protective equipment and hence rushed its approval. “It’s a fairy tale. It is being done because we don’t have the policies in place to do what needs to be done, and people are going to be hurt because of it," they said.
Another nurse was unsure if reusing these decontaminated masks is protecting them. “They keep saying these recycled masks are still safe after all these cycles, but we don’t know that,” according to a nurse in Pennsylvania, whose hospital has used the machines, told NBC news. “What we do know is that there are not enough masks for medical workers, and there are very real consequences if we get sick," they added.
According to Battelle, the company had only verified the purity of masks in-field testing for four uses, and not 20. “To date, Battelle has received and tested samples representative of four actual use cycles from MassGen,” Will Richter, Battelle’s principal research scientist, said. “The goal of this assessment is to determine the impact of actual wear," the company told NBC News.
In late March, Trump told reporters that he was unhappy about health workers discarding masks. He suggested that they must find ways to reuse them. "We have very good liquids for doing this, sanitizing the masks, and that that's something they're starting to do more and more. They're sanitizing the masks," he said. He made these statements even as the FDA discouraged its reuse, adding that it "should not be shared or reused".
The FDA approved the technology for emergency use on March 29, but Ohio Governor Mike DeWine was not happy. He slammed the federal agency for restricting the use of machines.
"The FDA's decision to severely limit the use of this life-saving technology is nothing short of reckless," said DeWine, who lobbied for Battelle. He also asked Trump to intervene. Ohio's attorney general threatened to sue if the FDA didn't act quickly to authorize more extensive use.
The FDA then reversed its earlier stand, freeing the company from existing federal quality-assurance regulations. Soon after, the price had soared from the earlier $60 million to $413 million, finally reaching $600 million, according to NBC News.
"To date, the value of the contract remains at $413M," Defense Logistics Agency spokesman Patrick Mackin said. "The maximum value of the contract is $600M in the event we need to make any adjustments in the support provided by Battelle during the period of performance."
“It’s just outrageous,” Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama, said in a telephone interview with NBC News. “Over the course of the last few weeks, what this administration has done, how they have done it with contracts and everything, there’s no transparency, there’s no accountability."