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In the early days of the pandemic, the US government turned down an offer to manufacture millions of N95 masks in America

A whistle-blower complaint details a Forth Worth businessman’s proposal to make millions of N95 masks for the federal government, which was refused by administrators as the first COVID-19 cases were emerging in the United States.
A whistle-blower complaint details a Forth Worth businessman’s proposal to make millions of N95 masks for the federal government, which was refused by administrators as the first COVID-19 cases were emerging in the United States. AFP via Getty Images

It was Jan. 22, a day after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the United States, and orders were pouring into Michael Bowen’s company outside Fort Worth, some from as far away as Hong Kong.

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 still have four like-new N95 manufacturing lines,’’ Bowen wrote that day in an e-mail to top administrators in the Department of Health and Human Services. ‘‘Reactivating these machines would be very difficult and very expensive but could be achieved in a dire situation.’’

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But communications over several days with senior agency officials — including Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and emergency response — left Bowen with the clear impression that there was little immediate interest in his offer.

‘‘I don’t believe we as an government are anywhere near answering those questions for you yet,” Laura Wolf, director of the agency’s Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection, responded that same day.

Bowen persisted.

‘‘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.

Bowen’s overture was described briefly in an 89-page whistle-blower complaint filed last week by Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Bright alleges he was retaliated against by Kadlec and other officials — including being reassigned to a lesser post — because he tried to ‘‘prioritize science and safety over political expediency.’’ HHS has disputed his allegations.

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E-mails show Bright pressed Kadlec and other agency leaders on the issue of mask shortages — and Bowen’s proposal specifically — to no avail. On Jan. 26, Bright wrote to a deputy that Bowen’s warnings ‘‘seem to be falling on deaf ears.’’

That day, Bowen sent Bright a more direct warning.

‘‘US mask supply is at imminent risk,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Rick, I think we’re in deep [expletive],’’ he wrote a day later.

The story of Bowen’s offer illustrates a missed opportunity in the early days of the pandemic, one laid out in Bright’s whistle-blower complaint, interviews with Bowen, and e-mails provided by both men.

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.

In a statement, White House economic adviser and coronavirus task force member Peter Navarro said: ‘‘The company was just extremely difficult to work and communicate with. This was in sharp contrast to groups like the National Council of Textile Organizations and companies like Honeywell and Parkdale Mills, which have helped America very rapidly build up cost effective domestic mask capacity measuring in the hundreds of millions.’’

Carol Danko, an HHS spokeswoman, declined to comment on allegations raised in the whistle-blower complaint.

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Wolf also declined to comment on the complaint.

A senior US government official with knowledge of the offer said Bowen, 62, has a ‘‘legitimate beef.’’

‘‘He was prescient, really,’’ the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. ‘‘But the reality is [HHS] didn’t have the money to do it at that time.’’