How wool PPE face masks could help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in New Zealand

A newly launched face mask made of wool could help prevent a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) if there is another outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. 

The masks - developed by the company Lanaco - were officially launched at a Parliament function on Tuesday evening with Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor.

Demand for face masks and other PPE gear surged earlier this year before community transmission of COVID-19 was eliminated.

Although COVID-19 is currently under control in New Zealand, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has warned that is likely to change at any time.

"It's not a matter of if, but when, we get this virus back in the community," Dr Bloomfield told The AM Show on Wednesday.

Nick Davenport, founder and director of sales and marketing at Lanaco, says his company has been working for years on developing face masks but the pandemic has "certainly blown the whole thing out of the water".

"We were focusing on global environmental air quality and other contaminants in the air which affects people's health negatively," Davenport told Magic Talk's Rural Today on Wednesday. 

"This virus is just something much bigger and newer and more serious."

Last month the company's wool masks passed all testing for AS/NZS 1716 P2 level, the New Zealand equivalent of the N95 level in the US.

"That means it's suitable PPE for the frontline or people in the workplace," Davenport said.

The masks make use of wool's positively charged nature, which Davenport says "translates to an electrostatic filter which acts as a magnet to capture a whole range of particles in the air".

"It's naturally bacteria-static, so germs don't remain on it and it naturally absorbs toxins," he said.

"These are certified masks to protect people from external organisms as well as protecting other people from themselves."

Davenport says the masks are designed, engineered and built in New Zealand, using wool from specially selected flocks of sheep bred in Central Otago.

Lanaco's ability to produce masks entirely in New Zealand gives the country more security if there is another outbreak here. 

And with the pandemic showing no signs of easing around the world, PPE remains highly sought after - so much so that the company is scaling up rapidly to meet overseas demand for its technology. 

Despite wool being much more sustainable than synthetic alternatives, Davenport said the fibre was challenging to work with.

"Synthetic materials are cheap and consistent and animal products are expensive and variable - so we had to get a high level of performance from our product to compete against existing synthetic media," he told Rural Today.

As well as helping in the fight against COVID-19 in New Zealand, the company hopes the product will soon also be able to benefit our neighbouring countries.

"Now that we've established a supply chain in New Zealand it gives this country a great opportunity to both use that technology, use that opportunity and capability internally to protect New Zealand citizens but also use it to help to protect our Pacific partners and to develop a large-scale export market."