WASHINGTON — One of America's largest manufacturers of medical face masks rode to Canada's rescue Monday, forging an agreement with the White House that allows it to provide millions of its precious N95 respirators to the U.S. market without sacrificing supply bound for north of the border.
Minnesota-based 3M, which has been at the centre of a clash with President Donald Trump and his administration over the company's reluctance to abide by orders to prioritize American demand for the masks, confirmed plans to continue to fill orders in Canada and Latin America.
3M and the U.S. government "worked together to ensure that this plan does not create further humanitarian implications for countries currently fighting the COVID-19 outbreak," the company said in a statement that emerged on the heels of Trump's latest marathon briefing at the White House.
"The plan will also enable 3M to continue sending U.S.-produced respirators to Canada and Latin America, where 3M is the primary source of supply."
During his briefing, Trump declared that his spat with the company was at an end and sang the praises of Mike Roman, the company's chief executive, as he announced that 3M would be producing 166.5 million masks for overtaxed and under-supplied health care professionals across the U.S.
He didn't mention, however, that those N95 masks would be coming from the company's manufacturing facilities in China, which is how 3M said it will meet at least some of the ever-increasing American demand while still filling orders both north and south of the U.S.
"We share the same goals of providing much-needed respirators to Americans across the country and combating criminals who seek to take advantage of the current crisis," Roman said in a statement.
"These imports will supplement the 35 million N95 respirators we currently produce per month in the United States."
Earlier Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called out the U.S. by name, complaining that Canada had been having problems for weeks with incomplete or non-existent deliveries of critical COVID-19 countermeasures — particularly respirators, which are the subject of skyrocketing demand around the world.
"We have recognized over the past weeks a number of situations in which shipments coming from different countries around the world have been delayed, (or) haven't arrived with as many products as we were hoping to see," Trudeau said.
"This continues to be an ongoing problem — specifically with the United States. We are working with them to ensure the orders Canada has placed get delivered. We expect those shipments to come."
Ontario Premier Doug Ford complained Monday about a shipment of Ontario-bound masks being held up at the Canada-U.S. border over the weekend, a circumstance he attributed directly to Trump's decision to order American producers to prioritize the domestic market.
"We're putting pressure on the U.S. from all sides. It's absolutely critical that we get an exemption from this presidential order," said Ford, who appeared stricken as he warned that the province's stockpile of supplies would run out in a matter of days.
"It's certain items that the whole world is trying to get their hands on right now, and I'm doing the same thing," he said. "I'll be on this like a dog on a bone."
Ford initially said that a shipment of three million masks was turned around at the border, and that after a conversation with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, he'd been able to secure 500,000. But Ontario government officials later said the premier was mistaken — that the delayed shipment had only been 500,000 masks in the first place.
Regardless of the numbers, Ford said he wants to lay eyes on the goods before declaring his efforts successful.
"I go back to trust, but verify," he said, noting that Lighthizer gave him a "glimmer of hope" that the U.S. would be more co-operative in future. "I've heard in the past, 'It's on its way, it's on its way,' (but) it wasn't on its way."
The Trump White House has invoked the Defense Production Act to compel U.S. manufacturers of the equipment, such as 3M and Honeywell, to prioritize orders being co-ordinated by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The White House insisted late last week those orders wouldn't interfere with exports that are in the national interests of the United States — a late-day caveat that came after 3M expressly disclosed that the administration had asked that it stop exporting N95 masks.
But reports from around the world suggest the U.S. is using its unmatched buying power and international clout to muscle out smaller buyers. Germany, France and Brazil have all complained about having orders resold out from under them — sometimes right on the airport tarmac after a last-minute exchange of cash.
"We feel we are being hurt," said Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. She said Canada continues to drive home the point that given the interconnected nature of supply chains between Canada and the U.S., "a win-win outcome, where both parties continue to help each other, is the very best outcome.
"We look forward to a definitive resolution to this situation."
Freeland also singled out 3M and Roman for their "very, very responsible" position in standing up to the White House. As an international supplier of one of the most important pieces of personal protective equipment, 3M is in a "very special place" right now as it seeks to balance domestic demands with global humanitarian responsibilities, she noted.
"It is really a Wild West when it comes to buying medical supplies right now," Freeland said. "This is a global pandemic, and every country in the world is doing its best in a truly fierce competition to get medical equipment."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2020.
— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle
James McCarten, The Canadian Press