Last week, Brigham and Women’s Hospital received a shipment of 3,000 face shields and goggles through an unusual channel — a Harvard Business School student from China, Sophie Bai, and a team of classmates and medical advisers working pro-bono around the clock.
Dr. Mark Davis, vice president of Brigham Health International, said he has seen his own procurement office tirelessly search for supplies as their normal distributors have run dry. They too have created innovative solutions, such as sterilizing disposable equipment for reuse. But, with an endless demand, Davis and his colleagues welcomed the additional gear.
“Through this donation, we are able to prove the reliability of this really new sourcing mechanism,” Davis said. “It’s something that’s new, it's critically important and I think it will be instrumental to giving us the sort of PPE that we need here and around the country.”
The coronavirus pandemic is creating an insatiable demand for medical and personal protective equipment (PPE) that has overwhelmed the world market. China has ramped up production of needed supplies by bringing new manufacturers online. In an international marketplace where companies, federal and state agencies are fighting for equipment, Bai and her colleagues are creating a new supply chain.
Bai first came from China to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 10 years ago to pursue an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. After stints as a private consultant, she decided to get a degree from the Harvard Business School. When Harvard's campus shut down in mid-March, she said she had time on her hands and saw a way to help protect Boston’s front line workers in hospitals, some of whom were her friends.
Bai said she has a family friend back home in China who is an established distributor of medical equipment, which provides Bai with direct access to supplies and a reliable export infrastructure. So many new factories are now producing supplies that Bai said it’s hard to know which ones can be trusted to deliver quality goods efficiently.
“Because my friends have direct access with the factories, they would actually fly there, do the sample testing themselves and be there to get the PPE out when goods are available,” Bai said. “This is really important in terms of quality control.”
Bai said she has also worked to interpret the complex dual standards of medical goods between China and the U.S. She said she has scoured FDA databases to verify a factory’s claim to be certified for a given product and reviewed pages of testing data to reconcile the different standards used in each country. She also researched the comparison between the FDA-approved N95 masks and the KN95 surgical masks from China.
“So what you really have to look into is the bacterial filtration, particle filtration, fluid resistance, the differential pressure, the flammability,” Bai said. “You have to look into those specs to understand what are the differences. What do those mean.”
In addition to working with the Brigham, WGBH News has confirmed that Bai procured supplies for Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Lahey Health, Boston Medical Center and Hebrew Senior Life, a large provider of senior health care and living communities. In total, the team has secured 1.4 million pieces of critically needed medical and PPE. Some 300,000 pieces have already arrived, and Bai said she expects to receive another 400,000 pieces within the week, with the rest to follow shortly.
Bai and a team of 11 volunteers in Boston and Los Angeles, mainly her other classmates from Harvard, communicate in Mandarin with Chinese companies and in English with institutions in the U.S. Having a friend on the West Coast allows Bai to operate nearly around the clock. Even so, though, Bai said she has lost out on opportunities to grab critical goods due to her lack of immediate access to cash to pay for the goods.
Bai’s Harvard Business School professor, Jeff Bussgang, said the international market for PPE is chaotic.
“It feels more like the Stock Exchange trading floor,” said Bussgang. “People are aggressively pursuing supply, bidding and paying up front on the spot.”
Harvard Business School has no official involvement in the operation, but to connect Bai with quicker access to the funds needed to secure the PPE, Bussgang introduced Bai to The Boston Foundation, which usually funds community programs, including WGBH. The foundation’s Tim Smith said they set up a new funding mechanism specifically to buy medical supplies through Bai’s operation — something they've never done before. They partnered with Flywire, a Boston-based financial technology company that wires money between countries faster than traditional banks.
“It’s nontraditional to use a charitable fund to essentially purchase goods and deliver them to local hospitals,” said Smith, the Foundation's senior director of philanthropy. “It’s definitely a new thing for us and I think it can make a significant impact.”
The fund currently has over $2 million from 29 committed donors.
Bai said she’s seen an outpouring of support both in China and from Chinese communities around the U.S. eager to help Boston. And she knows why. Boston is a mecca for Chinese students, she said, and they want to give back to a place they see as their second home.
“There is really an emotional tie between Chinese community to Boston in general because so many of us had a transformative experience growing up from our late teens to our early twenties,” Bai said.
Rachel Rock is a Boston University journalism student and a former WGBH News intern.