In the year before the pandemic, we saw a wide range of masks, from completely unsafe fashion pieces to RGB nightmares, not to mention a bunch of other stylish options. But if you think you might have an idea for a better mask that more people might want to wear, the U.S. Government's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Administration (BARDA) has announced a competition to develop "the next generation of masks" - with a potential $ 500,000 total prize waiting for the winners.
The Mask Innovation Challenge was created in partnership with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, an organization under the CDC) to address some common complaints leveled at masks, like the fact that they can fog glasses, irritate the skin, become uncomfortable to wear, get in the way of communication, and possibly let COVID-19 particles through the sides.
The competition will be held in two stages. The first stage, focused on "design", is divided into two tracks, one that looks at redesigning existing masks, and the other that focuses on new technologies and materials. The materials should include actual schematics for creating the proposed masks, which NIOSH says can be tested in the future. The first stage will produce up to 10 winners, each of whom will receive $ 10,000 to help build a prototype of their masks.
The second stage of the "proof of concept" will require the contestants to answer a hypothetical scenario with a completely new mask design, not based on any existing mask. The participants of the second stage will present physical prototypes of their masks for testing by NIOSH. Up to five winners of the second stage will share the total prize pool of $400,000. NIOSH and BARDA say that more information about the second stage will be available later.
Holding a design contest to find a" better " mask may produce some real solutions, but beyond that, I think it reflects the increasing role masks can play in our lives, even after most people are vaccinated. And that doesn't mean that the masks you may already own aren't effective; they are. There are really a few problems getting in the way of using the mask; addressing complaints in the mask design is one direction, but another big accessibility issue. Mask manufacturers are not yet able to consistently meet the demand.
For example, it's still not as easy as it should be to get N95s and KN95s, two frequently recommended masks that offer a step up in filtering out the fabric varieties. There's a lot at play here too; the long-term effects of offshoring the production of medical supplies have affected availability, but so has the shortage of key materials for making masks, like meltblown textiles. There is also a separate issue of fake masks. According to the CDC, about 60 percent of KN95s in the U.S. are not as effective at filtering out COVID-19 particles as their labels may indicate.
The Biden administration has embarked on plans to force the creation of more important pandemic supplies and ease some of these issues, but it's important to remember that creating a better mask is just one aspect of a much broader strategy. There is no guarantee more people will wear victory masks just because they don't fog their glasses.
The deadline for applying for the first stage of the mask Innovation Challenge is April 21.