WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said Saturday it is using its authority under the Defense Production Act to boost the supply of N95 masks, which are essential for protecting healthcare professionals from the coronavirus and are in short supply in many places.  

The American military will spend $133 million to increase U.S. domestic N95 mask production by over 39 million over the next 90 days, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews said in a statement.

This is the first time the Pentagon is using the Korean War-era law to address coronavirus needs after it won approval late Friday from a White House task force.

The Defense Production Act, approved in 1950, grants the president the power to expand industrial production of key materials or products for national security and other reasons.

Andrews said the Pentagon in coming days will identify the companies involved when the contract is awarded.

Earlier this week, 3M and the White House announced a plan  to import 166.5 million N95 masks over the next three months to support healthcare workers in the United States, supplementing the 35 million N95 respirators the company currently produces per month in the United States.

The announcement came after Trump last week said he was invoking the Defense Production Act in order to acquire additional N95 masks from the company. Trump had demanded a pause in the exports of domestically produced respirators to Canada and some Latin American countries, where 3M is the primary supplier.

“3M is doing a great job,” Trump said Friday.

Canadian officials had criticized Trump's efforts to block 3M export of N95 respirator masks to Canada.

Last month, Trump invoked the act to require General Motors Co to build ventilators needed to treat severely sick coronavirus patients even though the U.S. automaker announced it would begin building ventilators by mid-April.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department awarded GM a contract for $489 million to produce 30,000 ventilators, while it also announced a $646.7 million contract given to Dutch health technology company Philips to produce 43,000 ventilators.

 (Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)