US seeking industry cooperation on future medical supplies

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FILE - In this April 13, 2020, file photo, a car passes nurses protesting the lack of N95 respirators and other Personal Protective Equipment outside the UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica amid the coronavirus pandemic in Santa Monica, Calif. An Associated Press review of more than 20 states found that before the coronavirus outbreak many had at least a modest supply of N95 masks, gowns, gloves and other medical equipment. But those were often well past their expiration dates left over from the H1N1 influenza outbreak a decade ago. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

WASHINGTON – U.S. officials are invoking a rarely used provision of American law that would shield companies from antitrust regulations to help the country from again running out of medical supplies in a pandemic.

The government began formal discussions Thursday with private industry officials and representatives on a cooperative five-year agreement to ensure future supplies of protective materials, medical equipment, medicine and vaccines.

The agreement would involve a provision of the Defense Production Act that has been used only twice before to enable competitive businesses and the government to discuss issues of price and supply without running afoul of antitrust regulations, said Joel Doolin, a senior official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Clearly it could have applications to what’s happening now, but because it’s a five-year look it’s intended so we can set up this relationship with industry, have those conversations and plan for the future,” said Doolin. He has a lead role in the effort as FEMA's associate administrator for policy, program analysis and international affairs.

There was widespread recognition that U.S. supplies of critical equipment, much of which is now manufactured overseas, were insufficient at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak.

U.S. hospitals as well as many private companies and even government agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and states themselves struggled to acquire protective masks, gowns, face shields and other gear, often bidding against each other and driving up prices amid the shortage.

FEMA worked with businesses and other agencies to acquire tens of millions of N95 respirators, masks and other pieces of equipment from around the world and distribute them across the United States while President Donald Trump invoked a separate provision of the Korean War-era law to boost private-sector production of ventilators and other equipment.

But COVID-19 resulted in simultaneous disaster declarations in all states and territories as well as the District of Columbia, and the pandemic presented an unprecedented strain on emergency supplies. Doolin said the voluntary agreement under discussion is intended to streamline the effort in the future.