A new website is taking on one of the biggest issues of the coronavirus era: the shortage of N95 masks and other PPE, or personal protective equipment.
Project N95 connects healthcare institutions that urgently need equipment—including masks, isolation gowns, and ventilators—with suppliers around the world that stock them or that have the capacity to produce them. The online platform, which only went live in the early hours of Friday morning, now serves as an intermediary between the two parties, or as it calls itself, a “medical equipment clearinghouse.”
“What we’re doing is trying to get all the information into a single spot, to connect those who have the demand to those who have the supply,” says Nadav Ullman, one of the founding members. A tech entrepreneur, Ullman represents just one of the diverse professional backgrounds of the founders and 70 volunteers, so far, that have pulled together to run the “centralized marketplace.”
The parties in need of items fill out a short form, noting what equipment they require and in what quantities, along with any price constraints. So far, the site has received requests from more than 1,900 institutions, which include hospitals and local governments, requesting more than 87 million pieces of equipment. The demand continually updates on the site in real time.
On the other end, suppliers and manufacturers also fill out a form, after which the rapid-response team of volunteers vets them on a phone call to check regulations such as FDA registrations, and export licenses for international suppliers. That team then acts as a mediator in finding the best matches, grouping smaller buyers if necessary to fulfill minimum orders from suppliers, before connecting the two parties to discuss logistics and shipping. Because the project is so early in its infancy, no equipment has yet been distributed, but as of Wednesday afternoon, it has matched more than 40 million pieces of equipment, mostly masks, up from 13 million on Tuesday evening.
One of the issues is that the PPE supply chain is so complex, involving both governments and private industries. “The whole supply chain has become a little bit of a Wild, Wild West,” Ullman says. In an appearance on MSNBC Monday night, another founding member, Andrew Stroup, talked to Chris Hayes about this complexity. The facilitator idea made sense, Stroup said, in identifying which suppliers are out there, and which ones have the capacity to “pull the lever.”
The federal government has been criticized for not stepping up to the demands. PPE has been in dire demand, and stories have emerged of medical professionals having to dangerously reuse N95s, make masks out of bandanas, sew them together at home, or get them from dentists or vets. Vice President Pence said industrial masks from construction sites are “perfectly acceptable” for doctors and nurses. Various medical groups wrote a letter to President Trump March 21, urging for an increased supply, and Trump has sent mixed messages on whether he has, in fact, invoked the Defense Production Act in order to ramp up manufacture. This all begs the question as to why it’s up to a group of benevolent professionals to create a marketplace to fill a role that should arguably have been taken on by the government.
“We really started with the question of, ‘how can we help?’ when there’s clearly just such a huge gap in general fulfill here,” says Jaime Getto, the group’s communications representative, who’s also a cofounder of a travel startup. “So, government aside, it’s just something where we wanted to really be able to jump in and make an impact.” Project N95 is in the process of applying for its 501(c)3, hoping that with its nonprofit status it will be able to take donations and help fund equipment purchases with the money raised.
Because the project is so early in its infancy, Project N95 has scant data so far, including prices of equipment (or whether any is being offered for free). But, one of the central goals is to aggregate that data, including costs, into one place, to make it widely available for governments to see and use. “What Project N95 is doing is allowing transparency and easy accessibility to existing information that is already out there,” Ullman says.
Other founders that jumped into the collaborative effort include tech startup CEOs, a GitHub product manager, and a Code for America manager, among others, and the project has support from Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of Medicare and Medicaid services under Obama. It has attracted social media attention, and retweets, from Mark Cuban, and Matt Cutts, administrator of the United States Digital Service.
“Our mission is to really just connect the dots,” Getto says. “We’re all in this together. We’re just putting our best effort in here.”