Bowen’s medical supply company, Prestige Ameritech, could ramp up production to make an additional 1.7 million N95 masks a week. He viewed the shrinking domestic production of medical masks as a national security issue, though, and he wanted to give the federal government first dibs.
…“We are the last major domestic mask company,” he wrote on Jan. 23. “My phones are ringing now, so I don’t ‘need’ government business. I’m just letting you know that I can help you preserve our infrastructure if things ever get really bad. I’m a patriot first, businessman second.”
In the end, the government did not take Bowen up on his offer. Even today, production lines that could be making more than 7 million masks a month sit dormant.
…“U.S. mask supply is at imminent risk,” he wrote. “Rick, I think we’re in deep s—,” he wrote a day later.
…Within weeks, a shortage of masks was endangering health-care workers in hard-hit areas across the country, and the Trump administration was scrambling to buy more masks — sometimes placing bulk orders with third-party distributors for many times the standard price.
…The story of Bowen’s offer illustrates a missed opportunity in the early days of the pandemic, one laid out in Bright’s whistleblower complaint, interviews with Bowen and emails provided by both men.
…In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress appropriated $6 billion to buy antidotes to bioweapons and the medical supplies the country would need in public health disasters. An obscure new government organization called the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, was among the agencies purchasing material for what would become the Strategic National Stockpile.
…In Trump’s first year, however, Bowen grew newly disillusioned. During a week when the White House touted its “Buy American, Hire American” initiative, Bowen lost a military contract worth up to $1 million to a supplier that would make many of the masks in Mexico, he said.
“Shame on the Department of Defense! One of these days the US military will need America’s manufacturers to help win another war or fight another pandemic — and they will not exist,” Bowen wrote on Aug. 17, 2017, to Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Clark, a senior official with the Pentagon’s Defense Health Agency.
…On Jan. 20, Bowen also fielded a call from the Department of Homeland Security, urgently seeking masks for airport screeners. Bowen said he did not have masks in stock to fill the order, but the call led him to contact Bright to tell him about the surge in demand for masks. “Is this virus going to be problematic?” Bowen wrote.
Inside HHS, Bright quickly passed Bowen’s on-the-ground observations to a group that included Wolf, the director of the agency’s Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection.
…Bright wrote to his deputy asking him to explore whether BARDA could divert money earmarked for vaccines and other biodefense measures to instead buy masks.
…Nearly a month after his emailed offer, Bowen received his first formal communication about possibly helping to bolster the U.S. supply. The five-page form letter from the Food and Drug Administration — one Bowen said he suspected was sent to many manufacturers — asked how his company could help with what was by then a “national emergency response” to the shortage of protective gear.
Bowen responded on Feb. 16, by firing off a terse email to FDA and HHS officials. He directed the agencies to a U.S. government website listing approved foreign manufacturers of medical masks. “There you’ll find a long list of . . . approved Chinese respirator companies,” he wrote. “Please send your long list of questions to them.”
…The government soon spent over $600 million on contracts involving masks. Big companies like Honeywell and 3M were each awarded contracts totaling over $170 million for protective gear. One distributor of tactical gear — a company with no history of procuring medical equipment — was awarded a $55 million deal to provide masks for as much as $5.50 apiece, eight times what the government was paying months earlier.
On April 7, FEMA awarded Prestige a $9.5 million contract to provide a million N95 masks a month for one year, an order the company could fulfill without activating its dormant manufacturing lines. For the masks, Prestige charged the government 79 cents apiece.
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