More than a year after the pandemic, we’ve seen a wide variety of masks, from totally unsafe fashion pieces to RGB nightmares, not to mention a ton of other stylish options. But if you think you might have an idea for a better mask that more people would like to wear, the U.S. government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) is has announced a competition to design “the next generation of masks” – with a potential total prize of $ 500,000 awaiting the winners.
The Mask Innovation Challenge was created in conjunction with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, an organization under the CDC) to address some common complaints about masks, such as the fact that they can fog up glasses, can irritate skin, become uncomfortable to wear, get in the way of communication and potentially let COVID-19 particles in through the sides.
The competition has two phases. The first phase, focused on “design”, is split into two tracks, one that considers redesigning existing masks, and another that focuses on new technologies and materials. Entries must include actual schematics for building the proposed masks, which NIOSH says can also be tested in the future. Phase One will produce up to 10 winners, who will each receive $ 10,000 to help build a prototype of their masks.
The second “proof-of-concept” phase requires participants to respond to a hypothetical scenario with a brand new mask design, not based on an existing mask. Phase two participants will submit physical prototypes of their masks for NIOSH to test. Up to five stage two winners will split a total prize pool of $ 400,000. NIOSH and BARDA say more details about the second phase will be available at a later date.
Running a design competition to find a ‘better’ mask could bring up some real solutions, but otherwise I think it reflects the greater role that masks can play in our lives, even after a majority of people have been vaccinated. And that’s not to say the masks you may already own aren’t effective; they areThere are really several problems that prevent the use of a mask; Addressing complaints in mask design is one direction, but another major issue is availability. Mask manufacturers are not yet able to consistently meet demand.
For example, it is still not as easy as it should be to get N95s and KN95s, two oft-recommended masks that provide a step forward in the filtration of cloths. There is also a lot going on here; the long-term effects of offshoring production of medical supplies have affected availability, but there is also a shortage of important mask materials such as melt blown textilesThere is also the separate issue of fake masks. According to the CDC, about 60 percent of KN95s in the US are not as effective at filtering COVID-19 particles as their labels might indicate.
The administration of Biden has set plans in motion to enforce the creation of more essential pandemic stocks and alleviate some of these issues, but it’s important to remember that building a better mask is just one facet of a much bigger strategy. There is no guarantee that more people will wear the winning masks just because they don’t fog up their glasses.
The deadline for submission at phase one of the Mask Innovation Challenge is April 21st.