US President Donald Trump said his administration will try to stop “profiteers” from exporting medical protective gear during the coronavirus outbreak.
It comes after 3M, a major producer and exporter of protective face masks, said the proposed block on exports would raise “significant humanitarian implications”.
The spat began on Thursday, when Mr Trump used his authority under the 1950 Defence Production Act to direct the government to acquire the “appropriate” number of N95 respirators from 3M and its subsidiaries.
Nearly all of 3M’s exports of high-grade N95 masks go to Canada and Latin America, and Canadian officials led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau lobbied Trump administration officials not to cut off part of their supply.
The Minnesota-based company was worried that other countries could retaliate by withholding much-needed medical supplies from the US.
Despite this, Mr Trump announced that he will direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prevent the export of N95 masks, surgical gloves and other medical protective gear.
He said exceptions might be made to help Italy and Spain, which have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
“We are not happy with 3M,” Mr Trump added during a White House briefing.
The N95 masks, also called respirators, provide more protection against the virus that causes Covid-19 than ordinary surgical masks.
Governors and hospital officials around the country have warned of a dire shortage of masks and other protective gear for health care workers treating infected patients.
3M chief executive Mike Roman said Mr Trump’s insinuation that the company was doing something wrong was “absurd.”
“The idea that we are not doing everything we can to maximise deliveries of respirators in our home country – nothing is further from the truth,” he told CNBC.
The company said stopping the export of respirators would cause other countries to stop shipments to the US, leading to fewer respirators being available.
“That is the opposite of what we and the Administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek,” the company said in a statement.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said essential health supplies and workers flow both ways across the border, and blocking exports of 3M masks would be a mistake.
“I think of the thousands of nurses who cross the bridge in Windsor to work in the Detroit medical system every day,” Mr Trudeau said. “These are things American rely on.”
Doug Ford, premier of Ontario province, said he protested to US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, expressing concern that Mr Trump could create a shortage of masks for Canadian doctors and nurses.
“The health and well-being of our frontline workers depend on these essential medical items and now more than ever our countries need to work together to combat Covid-19,” Mr Ford tweeted.
Others, however, said allowing the company to export masks could threaten safety of Americans.
“The claim that it is humanitarian to ship masks that could have saved American lives to other countries will astonish and anger a lot of American customers of 3M,” said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan.
The row comes after Mr Trump announced new federal guidelines on Friday recommending that Americans wear face coverings in public to help fight the spread of coronavirus.
But he immediately said he had no intention of following the advice himself, saying: “I’m choosing not to do it.”