Facing Trump's wrath, 3M vows boosted mask production for US

US hospitals and other health facilities are in critical need of personal protective equipment like masks as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic (AFP Photo/Bryan R. Smith)

Washington (AFP) - 3M on Friday defended its handling of production and distribution of desperately needed masks to combat the coronavirus pandemic after President Donald Trump threatened to punish the US manufacturing giant for not shifting all distribution back home.

Trump's reprimand sparked an online pile-on against the company, and a warning by Canada against the White House restricting cross border trade in critical medical equipment.

Some critics accused 3M, whose production operations are worldwide, of unpatriotic behavior because it continued to sell some of its N95 respirators in other countries including Canada.

"We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks," Trump tweeted Thursday night, when he invoked a wartime law to compel 3M to produce more masks for American hospitals.

"Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing - will have a big price to pay!"

In a statement Friday 3M said its facilities "have gone above and beyond to manufacture as many N95 respirators as possible for the US market."

But it also said it would cause "significant humanitarian implications" if it stopped distributing masks in markets like Canada and Latin America, and would lead some countries to "retaliate" in kind.

Trump's tweet prompted a warning by Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It would be 'a mistake," he told reporters, to reduce cross-border trade in medical goods during such a crisis, especially since thousands of Canadians commute daily to work in Michigan's health system.

"I am confident that the close and deep relationship between Canada and US will hold strong and that we will not have to see interruptions in supply chain in either direction."

The Minnesota-based 3M faced fury from people who accused the company -- and its distributors -- of ignoring US needs and selling masks abroad to the highest bidder.

"3M distributors need to IMMEDIATELY stop the export of N95 masks to foreign countries while we need them here," Republican congressman Lance Gooden fumed.

"Companies need to step up and put AMERICA FIRST."

3M's chief executive pushed back against the attacks.

"The idea that 3M is not doing all it can to fight price gouging and unauthorized reselling is absurd," Mike Roman told US broadcaster CNBC.

3M is redirecting an additional 10 million of its China-made masks per month to the US beginning this week, Roman said.

He added that the company, already producing 35 million masks monthly, decided in January that it needed to double its domestic production.

US health facilities, overburdened as they treat a global high of 258,000 coronavirus infections and rising, have warned their personal protective equipment stockpiles are at critically low levels and some may run out within days.