Breathing room

China ramps up mask production


Reusable ones on the way

The merits of facemasks as protection against Covid-19 are debatable. The World Health Organisation’s first-ever TikTok video talked about the ways we can protect ourselves from the coronavirus. But it didn’t mention face masks once. In its second TikTok video it did, however, advise how to wear them properly (many of the surgical masks being worn on city streets are fitted poorly, leaving space between the mask and the nose and mouth).

The speed and scale of the Covid-19 epidemic has also led to shortages of masks like the N95, which can filter particulates as small as 0.3 microns. To that end, two Shanghai companies – a babywear maker and a materials company that develops nanomaterial – are producing reusable masks, the first of their kind in China.

Reportedly, the new product meets the KN95 standard, which is similar to certifications for the American N95 and European FFP2. The outside is a layer of cotton – superior to the non-woven material of disposable medical masks in terms of breathability, softness and comfort, says Shanghai Observer. Inside there is a thin nanofibre membrane that can filter 95% of particles as small as 0.075 micrometres in diameter (for reference, the latest coronavirus is about 0.1 micrometres in diameter, roughly one-900th the width of a human hair).

Conventional disposable medical masks or N95 masks are made of melt-blown non-woven fabric as their main material, and the two layers of non-woven fabric are welded together by an ultrasonic process. The manufacturers of the new KN95 masks claim that a different method of production means that their masks can be used up to 20 times after being cleaned with boiled water, alcohol or diluted bleach, although the manufacturers advise that wearers stick to 10 usages for maximum effectiveness.

The reusable range also boasts a longer shelf life than disposable versions. That means that, even after the epidemic, the new masks could serve as a “strategic reserve for the country,” Liu Boying, Commissioner of Epidemic Prevention in Shanghai’s Fengxian district, told Shanghai Observer.

Charles Wang, an advanced materials professor from a Beijing-based university, told the South China Morning Post that nanofibre can filter out coronavirus germs because the material serves as mini-sized activated carbon. “It’s also not a problem for nanofibre to be recycled,” Wang adds. “The key in producing a mask is to make sure that both sides can cover up the face closely, without any cracks in between.”

To keep the reusable masks affordable, the first batch have been priced at Rmb15 ($2) each, implying a cost to wear of about Rmb1 a day, says Sina Finance.

The more immediate problem is how to make them in large numbers. Workers at Juchen, the baby clothes supplier chosen to manufacture the new product, must sew the masks. Its factories have also complained about a limited supply of nanometre materials. Authorities in Shanghai said they are working on coordinating the supply of raw materials and that they have offered financial aid to Juchen to add manpower and machinery. At the moment, the manufacturer can make about 100,000 masks a day, with the expectation of scaling up to 300,000 in the near future.

Orders are mainly being taken from enterprises in Shanghai, which plan to give them to their employees. Another Chinese company Supield has released what it claims to be a similar product on various e-commerce platforms. Its reusable mask, which offers a water resistant layer, also uses nanofibre as a filtering agent, says

Despite some of the doubts about their benefits, there’s also a Herculean effort to scale up production of the simpler, disposable variety of mask protection. The National Development and Reform Commission reports that factories in China churned out as many as 116 million of them last Saturday alone, which was 12 times the daily output on February 1.

Xinhua points out that even prior to the coronavirus outbreak China already produced about half of the world’s masks.

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