US officials have stopped nearly three million specialized masks from being exported to Canada’s most populous province, amid mounting fears that Ontario will run out of supplies for medical staff battling coronavirus by the end of the week.
Donald Trump on Friday invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act giving the government “any or all authority” to stop 3M exporting N95 respirators to Canada and Latin America.
The masks, which filter out 95% of airborne particles, are seen as a critical tool for frontline healthcare workers in the fight against Covid-19.
But as supply shrinks, countries and local governments are locked in a desperate battle to access whatever equipment is available.
At a press conference on Monday, Ontario premier Doug Ford said the 500,000 masks had been cleared for release, but nearly three million masks were intercepted by US officials at 3M’s South Dakota Facility.
“We know that the US isn’t allowing supplies across the US border,” Ford said. “The hard truth is, our supplies in Ontario are getting very low and the more new cases we get, the more demand there is on our resources.”
3M initially resisted the president’s executive order, warning in a statement the move would have “significant humanitarian implications” for countries desperate for safety equipment.
Over the weekend, Trump harshly criticised the company, warning it would have “a big price to pay”.
“We need the masks. We don’t want other people getting it,” Trump said in a Saturday briefing to reporters. “That’s why we’re instituting [the] defence production act. You could call it retaliation because that’s what it is: it’s a retaliation. If people don’t give us what we need for our people, we’re going to be very tough.”
3M has not directly responded to the president’s remarks or say whether it intended to continue exports of protective equipment. But it issued a statement on Sunday saying it would “continue to maximize the amount of respirators we can produce for heroic healthcare workers in the US and worldwide”.
As Ontario scrambles to source new equipment, Ford said the province is “desperately” counting on orders placed through the federal government’s bulk purchasing program to bridge its short-term needs until a sustainable supply can be found.
The order from Trump has come as a blow to Canadians, many of whom prize the close relationship between the two countries.
Speaking at his daily press briefing on Monday, Justin Trudeau said his government wouldn’t implement retaliatory measures, instead relying on diplomacy to end the impasse.
“There are very productive conversations ongoing and we expect those shipments to be delivered,” said the prime minister.
Trudeau said foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne had spoken earlierwith US secretary of state Mike Pompeo – but declined to provide additional details about the halted shipment.
A US readout from the call said Pompeo “reiterated the United States’ desire to work with Canada” to ensure Canada had access to critical equipment while also hard-hit areas in the US from having a supply of equipment.
But Trudeau also cautioned Canada’s relationship with the United States is a “two way street” – a reference to the hundreds of healthcare workers in southern Ontario that cross into Michigan each day.
In addition to front line workers, Canada also supplies American companies with the primary materials needed to construct the specialized equipment, including a medical-grade fabric at a pulp mill in British Columbia. The mill, Harmac Pacific, said it had no plans to halt exports to the United States.
Despite the prime minister’s promise of a resolution with his American counterparts, provincial leaders are already looking to the future.
Quebec-based AMD Medicom Inc recently signed a deal to manufacture as many as 50 million surgical and N95 masks for the federal government, according to the Globe and Mail. And in Ontario, premier Ford said he was working with federal officials to expedite the approvals process for a new N96 mask developed by within the province.
“Never again in the history of Canada should we ever be beholden to countries around the world or companies around the world for the safety and well-being for the people of Canada,” Ford said Friday. ”I’m not going to rely on President Trump, I’m not going to rely on any prime minister or president from any country ever again.”