French space agency donates 90,000 face masks to hospitals

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WASHINGTON — Hospitals in Toulouse, France, received 90,000 face masks from the French space agency CNES this week in an effort to help limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the agency’s president. 

In an interview March 24, Jean-Yves Le Gall said CNES had a stockpile of face masks because of a French policy initiative roughly a decade ago directing government agencies to keep masks on hand in the event of a global pandemic. 

Many of the masks are beyond their designated three-to-five-year shelf life, but were kept anyway, creating the surplus, Le Gall told SpaceNews

“Every year we buy new masks. We kept the ones which are technically not usable, but in fact they are,” Le Gall said. “So, facing a shortage of masks, I took the initiative to propose these masks to the hospitals of Toulouse.”

Le Gall said hospital staff collected the expired but usable masks March 23. CNES has about 30,000 masks remaining for its own employees, he said. 

France has more than 29,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 1,700 deaths as of March 27, according to disease trackers at Johns Hopkins University. The country remains under lockdown, with fines issued for nonessential travel.

Le Gall said most CNES’s 2,500 employees are working remotely instead of at the agency’s facilities across mainland France and French Guiana, France’s South American territory where the Guiana Space Center is located. 

Around 70 to 80 people remain at the Toulouse Space Centre to continue operating military and civil satellites, Le Gall said. 

Another 120 or so remain at the Guiana Space Center to keep the launch site secure, CNES said March 23. 

When the Guiana Space Center will resume launch activity is an open question, Le Gall said. 

“When the French government says that the crisis is over then people will be able to come back to work in a safe mode,” he said. “We are ready to resume immediately, the launch operations, but I have no idea of the date.”

Le Gall said that despite the remote work and the spaceport shutdown, CNES has remained productive. 

“It has been quite easy to have them stay at home but continuing to work,” he said. “In fact, I am at home but I have never been so busy” since working from home has allowed online meetings during a wider range of hours. 

Space companies have donated money or resources to help combat the coronavirus. Avio made 250,000-euro ($275,000) donations to two hospitals: one in Kourou, French Guiana, and one in Colleferro, Italy, where the company builds Vega rockets, Avio spokesman Giuseppe Coccon said by email March 26. British launch startup Skyrora said March 23 it is creating hand sanitizer. SpaceX is making and donating hand sanitizer and face masks for hospitals and other businesses, according to a March 25 CNBC report