Face masks have become an essential part of everyday life around the world as the pandemic drags on into a second year. But a mask company in the Philippines is promoting a more fashionable design with a hole in it—and bristling at criticism that it doesn’t work.
In recent months, a company called CopperMask PH started selling a new face mask that “blocks airborne droplets in style.”
The masks, priced at P380 or $7.80, were promoted by Filipino celebrities, on billboards, and even in some media outlets as a “safer and stylish” mask with “antimicrobial film with infused copper strands and is effective to kill 99.9% of different bacteria and viruses.”
Social media influencers who used CopperMask described it as more “breathable” than uncomfortable surgical masks and better than the N95, widely considered one of the best mass-produced options.
While studies have shown that the coronavirus causing COVID-19 can die within hours on copper as opposed to longer periods on plastic, glass and other materials, critics of the new mask in the Philippines have said any benefits are outweighed by its alleged design flaw: the hole.
The popularity of CopperMask PH first turned controversial when, early this year, Makati Medical Center, a major hospital in Manila’s central business district, prohibited people from wearing it or any other masks that have openings. They argued that holes could potentially allow droplets in or out, leading to greater risks of infection.
“MakatiMed’s Infection Prevention & Control recommends the use of secure-fit face masks without valves, slits, or holes for the safety and wellness of its patients, guests, and healthcare workers while inside the hospital,” an advisory read.
The same warning was echoed by the Philippine College of Physicians in an advisory that shares the views of both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the use of face masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“Face masks should cover your face from the bridge of your nose to under the chin. Masks with vents or exhalation valves are not advised because they allow the unfiltered breath to escape the mask,” the group of medical experts said on social media.
But the copper mask maker pushed back against any warnings with press releases, promotional material in media outlets, and by calling the hospital’s advisory another “disease” known as “misinformation and panic.”
JC Premiere is the Philippine distributor of the copper mask. The company is owned by Jonathan So and Carlito Macadangdang, both of whom have ties with President Rodrigo Duterte and his government.
So and Macadangdang are also co-founders of Cloud Panda PH, an I.T. company that created the DU30 app, Digong app, and an app for Mocha Uson, a prominent pro-Duterte blogger who was later appointed to several government positions. The apps contain mostly pro-Duterte content and provide access to some government hotlines that allow citizens to share their concerns.
Critics of the face masks, including doctors, have also received cease and desist letters demanding they stop “defaming” the copper mask.
In the most well-known case, an Australian doctor who makes educational health videos for audiences in the Philippines said he received legal threats from lawyers for CopperMask PH after he published a YouTube video that pointed out its flaws.
“I can’t actually believe someone’s invented a face mask with a hole in it. Is this a joke?” Dr. Adam Smith said in the video that raked in nearly 700,000 views, explaining that the mask was not recommended by Philippine and Australian health authorities.
“We put out the video, 24 hours later, we got a cease and desist [letter] in our email. They also tagged me in a story on Instagram with the letter on it. Essentially, they kept pushing my buttons so I said ‘screw them, I’ll go public with it,’” Smith told VICE World News. He also provided a copy of the letter.
In the letter, the company’s lawyers, citing the cyber libel law, told Smith to stop posting “defamatory comments and remarks against CopperMask PH” and to “remove the Facebook post immediately.”
Smith said he wanted to raise awareness about the alleged legal threats after Filipino health sector professionals told him they received similar letters. He realized he was in a position to do so by being in Australia and more removed from legal threats.
“I’ve been contacted by multiple doctors, medical students saying they received cease and desist demands from the lawyers as soon as they posted about the topic,” he said.
Smith maintains that he did not defame the mask maker and that his review was factual, citing recommendations against using masks with holes or valves.
The Philippines has recorded 576,000 coronavirus cases and 12,300 deaths, making it one of the worst-affected countries in Southeast Asia.
As the debate over the mask simmered, the Department of Health in the Philippines issued a statement confirming that the copper masks were not medical grade. But unlike other medical experts, it did not discourage their use.
“Nevertheless, considering that it is still a face mask, it can still prevent the spread of COVID-19 mainly by acting as a physical barrier for droplets when a person emits droplets,” it said in a statement.
One doctor who received a demand letter from CopperMask PH assailed the health department’s position.
“The Department of Health is not standing by science, it is heavily politicized,” the doctor, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told VICE World News. “As a medical doctor, I am ashamed that they did not outright discourage the use of copper masks.”
“The interests at play here are clear as daylight,” he said. “FDA [Food and Drug Administration] has been cracking down on many imported face masks, but they are silent on copper mask, which is obviously flawed.”
In response, Food and Drug Administration Director Dr. Eric Domingo told VICE World News the copper mask “is not registered with the FDA” because it “is not being sold as a medical mask.” However, Domingo said it was “checked” by the agency’s Center for Medical Devices.
But Director Cecille Matienzo of the Center for Medical Devices denied the mask was reviewed by the center since “masks for general use do not pass through our office.” When asked for her opinion on the copper mask, she told VICE World News that she was familiar with it. But she added that “as a general precaution, in using masks, our nose and mouth, even the chin, should be fully covered to avoid the entry of the virus.”
Health secretary Francisco Duque III did not respond to a request for comment.
After the controversy, CopperMask PH announced in several press releases earlier in February that they had released a 2.0 version of the mask that features the same mask with a hole, but its non-woven fabric has since been updated with an enclosed filter.
“If they updated the mask, does that mean that the mask was faulty before the update?” Smith asked. “Will they be offering refunds for the masks with a hole in it? Lots of people bought masks with a hole in it. If this mask does not offer adequate protection against COVID, then they should be issuing a refund.”
At the time of publication, CopperMask PH did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE World News. The company’s lawyers said they could not respond without permission from the owners.