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US swoop sees 3M masks allegedly diverted from Berlin, Berlin consider that an act of modern piracy

Protective medical equipment made by US manufacturer 3M and bound for Germany was allegedly intercepted in Thailand and diverted to the US, leading a senior German official to accuse Washington of “modern piracy”.

But 3M, which has come under intense criticism from the White House for producing face masks for overseas customers, said it had “no evidence” to suggest a mask order for the city of Berlin had been seized. According to the German newspaper Tagesspiegel, the German capital ordered 200,000 special FFP2 and FFP3 masks that are used to protect emergency staff and care workers from infection with coronavirus. Andreas Geisel, Berlin’s interior minister, confirmed that the consignment had been “confiscated” in Bangkok and never reached Berlin. “We consider that an act of modern piracy,” he said. “You don’t treat your transatlantic partners like that.” 3M disputed the account, saying it has “no record of any order of respirators from China for the Berlin police”. German authorities were not available on Friday evening to explain the discrepancy.  The dispute came after the White House tried to force 3M to export masks to the US from its hub in Singapore, part of a growing federal government effort to exert its powers to secure critical medical supplies and gear needed to treat infected patients. 3M this week resisted demands by White House officials to send about 10m N95 respirator masks being produced in Singapore for markets in Asia to the US, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. On Thursday, US President Donald Trump invoked his authority under a Korean war-era law, the Defense Production Act, with regard to 3M’s N95 respirator masks.  That allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) to use “any and all authority” to buy “the number of N95 respirators” it “determines to be appropriate” from 3M and its subsidiaries, according to the wording of the act.

“We’re not happy with 3M,” Mr Trump said at a White House news conference on Friday.  In a statement on Friday night, Mr Trump said: “[The act] will help ensure that needed [personal protective equipment] is kept in our country and gets to where it is needed to defeat the virus.” On Friday morning, 3M said in a statement that the company was going “above and beyond” to boost production of N95 masks for the US market. It confirmed that the Trump administration had “requested that 3M increase the amount of respirators we currently import from our overseas operations into the US”, noting that it had secured the exports from China. 3M also said that the administration had requested that it “cease exporting respirators” from the US to Canadian and Latin American markets, but said this would also trigger a humanitarian crisis in those countries where 3M is a “critical supplier” and would end up backfiring on America, since the US would face retaliation. “If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease. That is the opposite of what we and the Administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek,” 3M said. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, said on Friday that it would be a “mistake” for the US to block exports of essential gear from reaching other countries.  “There is so much trade that goes back and forth in essential services, and it could end up hurting Americans as much as it hurts anybody else,” he warned at his daily press briefing.

Expressing frustration over the seizures, Mr Geisel said that despite the crisis, the “methods of the Wild West” should not prevail, and called on the German government “to press the US to stick to international rules.” The mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, accused Mr Trump of “lacking solidarity” and behaving “irresponsibly”. According to Tagesspiegel the Berlin police had ordered the masks from 3M. They were produced in a 3M factory in China and were due to be reloaded at Bangkok airport and flown to Germany. Instead the delivery went straight to the US. Germany has imposed an export ban on protective clothing, particularly OP and FFP masks, as it fights coronavirus within its borders.  French politicians have also complained of American attempts to divert shipments of masks intended for France to the US, although the US embassy in Paris denied on Friday that Washington was responsible.  France itself was accused last month of commandeering orders of medical equipment ordered by buyers in neighbouring countries. The Trump administration has not enacted export controls to keep products in the US. However, Peter Navarro, a White House trade and manufacturing adviser, hinted on Thursday at a forthcoming executive order that would see the US customs agency block foreign sales of medical supplies with inflated prices.  “We are going to crack down unmercifully,” Mr Navarro said.