WASHINGTON — A battle is shaping up between Donald Trump’s White House and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of protective medical gear — and Canada’s supply of surgical masks, a mission-critical tool in the fight against COVID-19, is hanging in the balance.

Minnesota-based 3M says the Trump administration is trying to prevent it from exporting its N95 respirators, the high-grade facemasks that are in high demand and dwindling supply around the world as health professionals, and now members of the North American public, try to defend themselves against the novel coronavirus.

The company, which calls itself a critical supplier of the masks around the world, says there would be “significant humanitarian implications” to acceding to the U.S. demand to limit exports to Canada and Latin America.

“In addition, ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done,” 3M said in a statement Friday.

“If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease. That is the opposite of what we and the administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kept his diplomatic cool Friday as he was barraged with questions about whether Canada’s critical supply of the masks is now in jeopardy.

As he has done from the outset of the outbreak, Trudeau insisted that ongoing talks with the U.S. to maintain the two-way flow of goods and services over a border now closed to non-essential travel would continue.

“We are receiving essential supplies from the United States, but the United States also receives essential supplies and products and indeed health-care professionals from Canada every single day,” he said.

“These are things that Americans rely on, and it would be a mistake to create blockages or reduce the amount of back-and-forth trade of essential goods and services, including medical goods, across our border. That is the point we are making very clearly to the American administration right now.”

The company was singled out for criticism Thursday by President Donald Trump, who has invoked the U.S.’s Defense Production Act to compel 3M to prioritize orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for masks to help meet soaring American demand.

“We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks,” Trump tweeted. “‘P Act’ all the way. Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing — will have a big price to pay!”

Demand for so-called personal protective equipment — gloves, gowns, face shields and the all-important N95 masks — has been soaring around the world as overtaxed doctors, nurses and hospitals struggle to manage the spike in COVID-19 cases while protecting themselves from infection.

And now that the Centers for Disease Control and others in the health community have started recommending everyone wear some sort of face covering while out in public, the scarcity of medical-grade masks is sure to get even worse.

“Over the last several days, we had some issues making sure that all of the production that 3M does around the world, enough of it is coming back here to the right places,” White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said Thursday.

“So what’s going to happen, the signing of that order in ‘Trump time,’ is we’re going to resolve that issue with 3M probably by tomorrow close of business because we can’t afford to lose days or hours, even minutes in this crisis.”

3M says it has already “gone above and beyond” to maximize production of the masks for the U.S. market, and was doing so long before the Defense Production Act was invoked.

“We appreciate the authorities in the DPA that provide a framework for us to expand even further the work we are doing in response to the global pandemic crisis,” the company said.

“We will continue to maximize the amount of respirators we can produce on behalf of U.S. health care workers, as we have every single day since this crisis began.”

Both Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland acknowledged 3M’s message as a sign they would not be cutting off export markets any time soon.  

“3M has indicated that it understands how important it is to continue with delivering on orders to places like Canada, because there is much trade that goes back and forth in essential services and it could end up hurting Americans as much as it hurts anybody else,” Trudeau said.

The prime minister said he’s confident that message is getting through, and demurred when asked whether Canada was contemplating any retaliatory measures.

 “I am confident that the close and deep relationship between Canada and the U.S. will hold strong, and we will not have to see interruptions in supply chains in either direction.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle


James McCarten, The Canadian Press