The Chinese-made “N95” respiratory masks were advertised online as having been certified by U.S. safety regulators — an important claim amid the global coronavirus pandemic, as front-line workers scramble for life-saving protective equipment.
But the masks were fake. And following an investigation by Global News, the counterfeits were pulled last week from websites in India, Pakistan and a half-dozen other countries.
“Thank you for bringing such counterfeit items to our attention,” Kashif Ali, vice-president at the Toronto office of Midas Safety, said in response to questions about the masks from Global News.
The Valpro Ranger 821 and 821V masks were promoted on Midas Safety websites in eight countries, including China, as having been certified “N95” by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, they were counterfeits, falsely bearing an approval number assigned to American multinational 3M.
“To be approved, a respirator model must meet the minimum performance requirements,” CDC spokesman Scott Pauley said in response to questions from Global News. “This approval process ensures a minimum level of worker protection from airborne particulates, such as what health-care workers may be exposed to during the COVID-19 response.”
The counterfeit Valpro Ranger masks were advertised on Midas Safety country websites in China, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Oman and Saudi Arabia, as well as on the Valpro Safety website in the United Arab Emirates. However, Valpro also sells Ranger masks online which do not claim to be N95 certified masks.
A disclaimer on the websites now warns that “some counterfeit products breaching the Valpro registered trademark are being sold falsely, claiming to have been NIOSH approved.”
Meanwhile, a review by Global News of sales sites on the Chinese online retail giant Alibaba shows that the Valpro Ranger N95 masks have been advertised for sale in minimum lots of 100 per order from a sales company based in Henan, China.
The Midas Safety country websites that had featured the Valpro Ranger N95 masks on their product pages said the company was managed from and “headquartered in Canada.” The contact information provided was in Toronto.
However, Ali stated that the Canadian company had no involvement in the counterfeit Valpro Ranger mask matter and had only passed on Global News’ questions to the corporate headquarters of Midas Safety Innovations Ltd. (MSIL), which owns the Valpro trademark.
Ali said the company had never sold counterfeit respirators or authorized their sale. The masks in question were mistakenly placed on the websites by a web administrator, he said.
“We have been informed that it was of one of the masks rejected by a distributor in UAE,” Ali said. “They had ordered such masks from a Chinese supplier who had falsely imprinted the NIOSH approval and 3M TC number.”
“When you pointed the mistake out to me, I raised this issue with MSIL, who have since then raised it with the relevant web administrator, and the photos and products were removed. Our connection to the offending masks is only to this extent.”
N95 respirators are form-fitting masks designed to seal around the nose and remove 95 per cent of tiny airborne particles. They are typically used by health-care workers and paramedics.
But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, around the world, supplies of quality-tested N95 masks have become scarce as panicked citizens have rushed to buy face masks believed to guard against virus-carrying particles.
This has put pressure on global supply chains, as countries such as Canada and the United States scramble to obtain enough masks to protect front-line workers.
The problem became more acute across North America in the last week of March, as the spread of COVID-19 infection rapidly increased, and hospitals and health-care associations issued urgent calls for N95 masks.
Kerry Bowman, a University of Toronto bioethicist, said the marketing of counterfeit masks is “profoundly problematic” amid the deadly threats from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Valpro Ranger masks that were identified for sale online by Global News claimed to be “designed to help provide reliable respiratory protection of at least 95 per cent filtration efficiency against certain non-oil based particles.”
But false claims of reliable respiratory protection could be fatal, according to Bowman.
“You could, in fact, be contributing to further illness and even death,” Bowman told Global News. “It’s very frightening that people are trying to make money at a time like this, in this way.”
Bowman said governments need to be investigating the selling of unapproved or fraudulent medical products as the deadly pandemic continues to spread.
“You don’t know what context people are going to use them in. These could be people purchasing either in health care or they could be caring for a family member with COVID-19,” he said. “They may be buying them because they really need some significant protection. One could be contributing to some very serious harm.”
Jean-Philippe Lepage, spokesman for Canada’s Competition Bureau, said that for legal reasons, he could not “confirm whether (the federal government) is investigating or has investigated this matter.”
Lepage said the Competition Bureau enforces laws that prohibit “false or misleading” labelling of products and “takes all allegations of anti-competitive conduct seriously.”
Meanwhile, the lack of N95 mask production capacity in the West has become a political issue and has also raised increasing questions about masks produced and sold by China.
On Sunday, Canadian Sen. Leo Housakos commented on the concerns when he tweeted a EuroNews report that said the Netherlands has recalled hundreds of thousands of masks imported from China and provided to health-care workers.
“China has a history of sending to the West defective products,” Housakos tweeted.
According to the EuroNews report, in a March 21 shipment of 1.3 million masks from China, 600,000 were found to be defective.
“The masks had a KN95 certification indicating that they should filter above 95 per cent of particles,” the report said, citing a statement from the Netherlands health ministry.
It said the health ministry “received a signal that, upon inspection, the quality of this shipment did not meet the required standards … it has now been decided to stop the use of this entire shipment.”