The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Tuesday announced two winners to its mask innovation challenge launched more than year ago, with the agency declaring the endeavor a success due to the new designs.
In March of 2021, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) launched a contest to develop "the next generation of masks." Contest participants stood to win hundreds of thousands of dollars if their designs were chosen.
HHS on Tuesday announced that the masks developed by Airgami and ReadiMask were chosen as the ultimate winners of the government competition. Both masks have already been made available on the market, though Airgami is not currently accepting orders due to high demand.
Both masks were found to provide filtration greater than 95 percent, HHS said in a statement. The agency cited the unique features of the masks including Airgami's origami inspired design that increased the surface area of the filter material and ReadiMask's use of adhesive to provide a close fit.
Both companies were awarded $150,000 for their winning designs. The runner-up masks created by Flo Mask and Levi Strauss & Co. were each awarded $50,000. Flo Mask's product has also already been introduced to the market.
"Overall, the Mask Challenge was a success; it supported new channels for innovative manufacturing lines, new patterns, folds, and materials to improve performance, new ways to increase the fit of masks, and the availability of masks for children and adults alike," HHS said.
The agency said the testing used in the competition could help the competing companies with regulatory submissions if they decide to seek approval, noting that some may not have had access to testing otherwise. The designs were evaluated by both the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
NIST made use of advanced imaging techniques to see how air flowed through and around the masks while experts from the NIOSH evaluated the 10 semi-finalist masks for breathability, filtration efficiency and thermal comfort.
Mask-wearing became commonplace in many people's lives after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While masking requirements have all but fallen to the wayside with the availability of vaccines, treatments and overall pandemic fatigue, health officials still advise mask-wearing during this respiratory viral season.
Apart from the coronavirus, other respiratory viruses including influenza and RSV have begun hitting hospitals systems across the country. HHS acknowledged there are many reasons why people decide to not wear masks such as discomfort, trouble breathing and doubts over efficacy.
The agency said this competition was aimed to address these concerns.
"We wanted to stimulate creativity in solving this problem and help improve public health – whether it’s flu season or allergy season, COVID protection, a wildfire, or a bad-air-pollution day that some areas experience," said HHS.