The face masks that we have to wear during the COVID-19 pandemic look deceptively simple. It looks like a simple fabric piece, with ear loops and sometimes a wire nose bridge.

In fact, there was a rumour going around in the early days of the outbreak that tissue paper was being used to make face masks – leading to mass panic buying. Of course, the truth is that face masks are far more complicated to make.

China, which supplies more than 50 percent of the world’s supply of face masks, now produces 200 million masks a day – more than 20 times the amount it made at the start of 2020. These masks range from lightweight surgical masks that people wear out in public, to the N95 masks used by healthcare personnel.

Mask factories in China are running at 110 percent capacity, according to officials. Yet, that is not enough to meet local demand, yet alone global orders. Aided by generous government subsidies, firms are retooling factories that once made items as varied as shoes, cars, and mobile phone components to make masks. Machines that once churned out fibrous materials destined for diapers and sanitary pads are now producing materials for masks.

China’s State Council is reportedly buying the entire supply of surgical masks and protective clothing from manufacturers, setting up a national reserve that would absorb any surplus caused by the COVID-19 emergency.

One of the firms in China’s mask-making “army”, as the Chinese government calls it, is Shengjingtong in north-eastern China. The company used a sterile space that they already owned with second-hand machinery to assemble the masks. Within 11 days, they were making more than 10,000 N95 masks a day. Now, it’s 200,000. Guan Xunze, chairman of Shengjingtong told broadcaster NPR, “Making masks is not as easy as you imagine. We have to make the ear loops and the wire bridge, the packaging. There is a pretty big system involved.”

Leo Liu, sales director at Haigong Machinery, further adds, “Everyone is considering mask manufacturing, but they don’t understand the process. Once they learn the cost of these machines, they give up.”

But despite the government and the private sector’s best efforts, there is a crucial bottleneck they must overcome.

Contrary to the rumour that face masks are made from tissue paper, they are actually made from an obscure material called melt-blown fabric. This fabrication method involves micro- and nanofibers, where a polymer melt is extruded through small nozzles surrounded by high speed blowing gas. The critical filtration system of masks depends on this fabrication method to work, which allows users to breathe while reducing the inflow of unwanted particles.

A typical roll of melt-blown fabric, which looks very similar to tissue paper

“We’re talking about fibres where one filament has a diameter of less than one micron, so we are in the nano area,” said Markus Muller, sales director at German company Reicofil, a major provider of melt-blown machine lines.

As one can imagine, fabricating this material is not easy. The melt-blowing machines cost upward of US$4 million apiece, and making a single machine line takes at least six months. This has led to a global shortage of melt-blown fabric. Prices of the material have skyrocketed from US$6,000 a ton before the outbreak, to US$60,000 a ton.

The exacting precision required to make the melt-blown fabric have also raised concerns over batch consistency and quality control due to the rush in orders.

Nevertheless, companies are pushing ahead in making melt-blown fabric and assembling the masks themselves. To fill the deficit of melt blown fabric, China said state oil and gas firm Sinopec was investing 200 million renminbi in March to start ten new melt-blown production lines. This is not just the fill orders from China, but also in Japan and South Korea, who are dealing with outbreaks of their own.

Meanwhile, India and Taiwan have banned exports of medical masks. The United States Food and Drug Administration has said no manufacturer of products it regulates has yet reported disruptions suggesting shortages of critical medical products, while the relatively small number of companies that make masks in the US are increasing production.

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