Americans have until April 21 to submit their ideas to the “Mask Innovation Challenge” hosted by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, the same federal health agency behind billion-dollar deals to make the nation’s COVID-19 vaccines and drugs.
“With this mask challenge, we want to get people across the country involved in developing new masks that are both effective and comfortable. This will help us control COVID-19 and be better prepared for future public health emergencies,” Nikki Bratcher-Bowman, the acting assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in a statement announcing the contest.
Prototypes must address a frustration that reduces “compliance with mask usage,” including “speech intelligibility,” “physical discomfort with use, particularly in hot and humid environments,” or even “fogging of eyeglasses during use.”
The top 40 ideas from around the country will be selected to move on to a pitch competition presenting their design to a panel of experts, with the 10 best submissions selected to receive up to $10,000 each. Finalists will then advance to a “proof-of-concept” phase with a total prize of up to $400,000, where masks will be tested by federal and partner laboratories.
The federal contest is not the first to award money for designing solutions to face mask complaints. The Xprize foundation poured $1 million last year into a contest to “crowdsource” a design that would “redefine the norm of mask-wearing behavior and help sustain crucial preventive health measures.”
Finalists from that months-long “Next-Gen Mask Challenge” competition included a modular mask designed by a team of Johns Hopkins University students, which touted a better seal to curb COVID transmission and fogged glasses.
BARDA’s announcement comes as federal health officials have redoubled pleas for Americans to wear masks to arrest the spread of COVID-19, as some states have lifted mask mandates even though faster-spreading mutant variants of the virus have emerged.
A large majority of Americans have told pollsters they are regularly wearing masks in recent surveys, though far short of the universal mask wearing that public health experts say could have saved thousands of lives.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Americans don multiple masks or devices to better fit masks earlier this year, after months of criticism calling on the agency to strengthen its guidance. But federal health officials were quick to say that wearing any mask was better than no mask, mindful that stepping up mask recommendations could frustrate Americans enough to stop some from wearing them altogether.
“As we see increases in cases, we can’t afford to let our guard down. We are so close — so very close to getting back to the everyday activities we all miss so much, but we’re not quite there yet,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House press briefing on Wednesday.
“We need to keep taking the mitigation measures, like wearing a mask and social distancing, as we continue to get more and more Americans vaccinated every single day,” added Walensky.