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U.S. diplomats urging nations to ramp up PPE production, seeking to buy supplies

Ventilators and personal protective equipment are among the critical supplies the U.S. is looking to buy from other countries.
Image: An employee works on protective masks and parts for ventilators at a factory near Minsk, Belarus, on March 24, 2020.
An employee works on protective masks and parts for ventilators at a factory near Minsk, Belarus, on March 24, 2020.Sergei Gapon / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The United States is urging foreign countries to ramp up production of masks, ventilators, body bags and other coronavirus items and is seeking to buy any quantities they can spare, even as President Donald Trump declines to use his full federal powers to force U.S. companies to manufacture them.

In a diplomatic cable, sent Tuesday by the State Department to all U.S. embassies and consulates and obtained by NBC News, American diplomats were given talking points to use in conversations with foreign governments about the coronavirus. They include emphasizing that the U.S. is facing “a historic surge in patients seeking care for COVID-19,” the disease caused by the virus.

“No country can fight COVID-19 alone,” the talking points say, adding that the U.S. is “doing its part to increase supply chain input and output” by taking “unprecedented steps to ramp up production of key equipment such as face masks.”

“We encourage your country to mobilize all appropriate domestic resources to scale up production of items needed to address this outbreak, including steps to mobilize potential productive capacity,” the cable said. “The United States seeks to purchase additional quantities of these items if your country has any excess capacity.”

The cable also says the U.S. is “willing to explore a mutually beneficial exchange of other materials to address COVID-19 related supplies that we have in excess.” Diplomats are encouraged to tell host countries they want to “begin a dialogue with your country on meeting our shared urgent medical needs as quickly as possible.”

An attached list, also obtained by NBC News, lists ventilators, resuscitators and anesthesia machines among the most critically needed supplies. It also includes swab kits, collection tubes and lab equipment used for coronavirus testing. Also on the list are personal protective equipment such as N95 respirator masks, gloves and goggles, as well as disinfectants. The list also mentions anesthetic drugs like ketamine and propofol, as well as antibiotics “for secondary infections.”

Also on the list of items requiring “scaled-up global production”: body bags, “suitable for burial or cremation.”

The cable carried guidance from the Health and Human Services Department and from FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center, according to a person familiar with its contents.

A senior State Department official said the information gathered by diplomats will be entered into a central “tracker.”

“We'll track that and then forward it to other agencies such as FEMA that are basically working on a supply chain issue for the U.S.,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record so spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And hopefully we can match up external suppliers and external sources with states and entities in the U.S. that actually need them.”

The push to get other countries to ramp up production, including for purchase by the U.S., comes as Trump faces scrutiny for his refusal to use the Defense Production Act to compel U.S. manufacturers to shift their production to making ventilators, masks and other urgently needed items.

Although Trump signed an executive order invoking the Korean War-era law, he has not yet triggered its provisions by directing companies to start making the needed supplies. Trump has argued that it’s not necessary because U.S. firms are eagerly stepping up to shift production to those items voluntarily. On Tuesday, FEMA said plans to use the act to compel production of test kits were no longer necessary because the government had managed to get the tests kits from the private sector without it.

At the same time, in other parts of the world, the United States continues to give away that same equipment to countries in need in the hopes of slowing the spread of the virus. Last week the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, donated 10,000 gloves, 10,200 masks, 1,400 isolation gowns and 200 pairs of protective goggles to be distributed across the country, according to a press release Tuesday from the U.S. Agency for International Development.