The Wild West of Face Masks  

By Ilja M. Bonsen, Managing Director, IB Consultancy   

In March IB Consultancy entered the world of Corona Face Mask trading in an effort to support our first responders with proper protection against the Corona virus. In this article, we will share some of the stories and most importantly, lessons learned from our month in the KN95 business.    Through our extensive network, IB Consultancy came in contact with a company that could deliver KN95 masks to The Netherlands. Although the price seemed a bit steep at USD3,00 per mask we put the deal forward to the procurement people at the Joint Hospital Procurement Alliance in The Netherlands led by Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. In the early morning of March 18th, we used a video call to inspect the stock of KN95 masks. One of the local representatives of our agent visited a number of factories and allowed us to guide him through the inspection using a WeChat Video call. Based on this inspection, the seller would be paid 4,5 million USD for the masks. 

To prepare for the video inspection, we spoke with multiple experts and decided on the following list of quality criteria: 

  1. Check if the mask fits the face of the person checking, 
  2. See if there are any loose threads on the mask, 
  3. Hold the mask against the light and see if the filter material is spread evenly, 
  4. Ask to stretch the mask to check for consistency and holes, and see how easy it breaks, 
  5. Drop some droplets of water on the mask and check how fast it moves through the material, 
  6. Check for any QAQC (Quality Assurance Quality Control) reports from the manufacturer, the last lot test report and any other documentation. 
Chinese factories often have a production capacity of around one million masks per week. However, what they often fail to mention is that half the production is already reserved for the government, and another quarter has been sold on a long-term contract to someone else. This means that effectively, 25% of the one million production capacity is available for you. The factory solves that in a number of ways. First, the (certified) factory often has a “secondary” location that hasn’t been certified and where they produce effectively the same product, but with less Quality Control (QC). Second, family of the factory owner often has a small factory (not certified) that uses the same raw materials and often the same machines producing effectively the same mask. However, the QC is even more difficult here. Finally, the factory owner uses his network to buy masks from other (unrelated) factories that have other machines and other sources for raw materials, producing completely different masks. 

We realized that these tests can never replace a full laboratory test, or even an improvised test using (proper) testing equipment, but it was all we could do on a video call.    At 1am we got on the call with China [insert video] and were shown a big row of boxes. The factory representative opened the first box and showed us masks. Obviously, we weren’t interested in the first box he opened, but in one of the boxes he didn’t open. We asked our agent to open another box that we picked. That box, and most of the other boxes turned out to be empty. However, the masks were apparently delivered in bags and stored in the other part of the factory hall to be packed in those boxes.    We asked the agent to perform the tests on some samples and all masks seemed to be “ok”. An hour later “we” arrived at the next factory and saw hundreds of boxes filled (yes these were full) with masks. However, we didn’t pay yet… Although these were “our” masks, we didn’t pay yet and hence they were on the open market. Five minutes into the call, two guys walk into the factory and buy the lot under our eyes. The masks were on their way to another European country.    The next morning, it was decided to buy the masks anyway: we didn’t see the masks that we would get, we couldn’t inspect them, and we bought them anyway. The risk of not having masks for our doctors and nurses was larger than the risk of losing the money.     After ten days the first batch of masks arrived. In the first shipment we had 8 different types of masks. After the second and third batches arrived, we had 1,5 million masks of 14 different types. The masks were first tested at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), and later by IB Consultancy with our new mask test setup using a TSI PortaCount 8038. We attached an improvised device to it to allow the PortaCount not only to test the fit of the mask, but also the filtration efficiency. Both the IBC and LUMC testing confirmed that all masks could be considered equivalent to the FFP2 level of certification.  

Lessons learned on the quality of masks 

  1. Unless you are buying a rutable branded mask (like 3M), you cannot trust certificates. Even when buying from a certified CE/FFP2 or N95 factory, there is a good chance that the factory will have a “secondary” production facility that produces masks that look the same, or that the factory will simply buy whatever products to fulfill its orders. 
  2. Measuring is knowing: Test samples from each batch of masks that you buy. Do the tests preferably close to the manufacturer (there are contract test labs in China), and otherwise in your country. If you don’t have access to a full lab, invest in simple test equipment to at least test the filter efficiency of the mask material.
  3. If you are buying 3M or similar brands, ask for documentation showing where the seller got the goods. To avoid getting fake masks, you don’t need to wait in line at 3M for 6 months, but you do need to check if the goods have a proper and logic trace from the factory. 

Who will use the mask? 

Think about the use of the mask. Who will be wearing it? FFP2, N95 and kN95 and 3ply don’t necessarily say much and one size does not fit all! 

  1. High intensity medical users (ER / Doctors/ Hospital nurses) would probably need a high quality FFP2/N95 such as the 3M 1860 (and similar) cup formed mask that provide a good fit and excellent filtering (>99%), or even a FFP3 mask such as the 3M 1873V. 
  2. Medium intensity medical users (GP Doctors/ other nurses) would probably need a good quality FFP2/N95 mask that provide a reasonable fit and good filtering (>95%). Good quality kN95 and the simpler 3M models should be sufficient. 
  3. First responders (police, fire service, guards) and persons in “close-contact” professions such as hairdressers would probably need a good quality FFP2/N95 mask that provides a reasonable fit and good filtering (>95%). Good quality kN95 and the simpler 3M models should be sufficient. 
  4. For other people wanting (or needing) masks, basic kN95s (>95%) and 3ply should suffice. 

Buying principles 

  1. Check the seller: how long does the company exist, what is their history in this market, does it make sense for them to sell you masks and who are the principals at the company. 
  2. Will you pay the actual seller, or one of the many middlemen? Always try to convince the middleman to move you to the actual seller or a reputable middleman. NCDA (Non Circumvent and Non Disclosure) agreement protects whoever brought you the deal. 
  3. Prepayment, advances and down payments are all the same: you put up money without having a product. When you make a payment to a country outside the USA and the EU, you will have little legal instruments to get your money back if things go wrong and it is the favorite payment method for scammers. This means that advance payments should be avoided. If you know and trust the company you are dealing with it could work. 
  4. An alternative for prepayment is making a payment in escrow with a reputable organization. Often the producer needs the prepayment to pay for raw materials, and he can use money in escrow to get a loan from his bank. Your money is only released under certain conditions (like a partial shipment). 
  5. The favorite instrument for international trade is the LC (Letter of Credit) and it releases the money to the seller on documents such as an inspection report by SGS and airway bills that the goods are on their way. It is the priciest instrument of all, but also the safest. 
  6. Unfortunately, Chinese manufacturers don’t like LCs (most of them don’t) and prefer “cash” payment either in advance or at delivery. 

Ilja M. Bonsen is the Managing Director of IB Consultancy and the President of the CBRNe Society. He currently serves as member of the strategic advisory board to the Commander of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. He studied Political Science in Leiden, The Netherlands, Business Administration at the Rotterdam School of Management and European Management at the Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary. After working as an ICT consultant for 8 years, in 2006 Ilja started working for the Business Unit of Biological and Chemical Protection of TNO Defense, Security and Safety in The Netherlands. Ilja managed mainly projects that had an international outlook, project concerning CBRN terrorism and projects focused on critical infrastructure protection. For TNO he led projects that included the EU funded Airsecure project on airport security, the Netherlands DHS funded CBRN Critical Infrastructure protection projects and projects for The Netherlands MOD and the European Defense Agency. In 2009 he started Ilja Bonsen Consultancy (www.ib-consultancy.com), a Netherlands based consultancy company specialized in applying knowledge on protecting people and objects against CBRNE terrorism.