Still Chained: N95 Masks and Supply Chains Lessons During COVID-19

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Still Chained: N95 Masks and Supply Chains Lessons During COVID-19

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Tani Fukui
MAR 17, 2021

Summary

Supply chains have become a much-maligned component of the international trade system. We examine the N95 mask shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic and argue that it demonstrates the difficulties of unraveling supply chains.

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N95 Masks: Deceptively Simple yet Vital

We start by looking at the N95 production process. The U.S. International Trade Commission published a report in December 2020 about the supply chain problems for COVID related goods, including N95 masks.1 Although it appears simple, masks are quite carefully engineered to provide the medical and environmental grade level of protection. Constructing the mask requires specialized equipment. Inputs include principally the meltblown fabric from which the main part of the mask is made, which is itself made from polypropylene resin using specialized equipment. During the pandemic, each of the steps faced supply constraints.