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Virus battle creates a global quest to find masks and PPE

China vacuumed up a big share of global supplies after the outbreak emerged in January. It imported 2 billion masks in a fiveweek period starting then, according to Chinese customs data, roughly equivalent to 2 1/2 months of global production. It also imported 400 million pieces of other protective gear, from medical goggles to biohazard coveralls.

New York Times|
Last Updated: Apr 02, 2020, 11.53 PM IST
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SHANGHAI: Million-dollar wire transfers to strangers. Rumours of hidden supplies in forgotten warehouses. Wheeler-dealers trying to talk regulators and customs officials into letting that one precious shipment through.

Global desperation to protect front-line medical workers battling the coronavirus epidemic has spurred a mad international scramble for masks and other protective gear. Governments, hospital chains, clinics and entrepreneurs are scouring the world for personal protective equipment they can buy or sell — and a new type of trader has sprung up to make that happen.

The market has become a series of hasty deals in bars, sudden calls to corporate jet pilots and fast-moving wire transfers among bank accounts in Hong Kong, the United States, Europe and the Caribbean. The stakes are high, and so are the prices. Wholesale costs for N95 respirators, a crucial type of mask for protecting medical workers, have quintupled. Trans-Pacific airfreight charges have tripled. The hurdles keep rising. On Tuesday, after complaints from Europe about shoddy Chinese masks and ineffective test kits, China’s Ministry of Commerce ordered manufacturers to provide further assurances that their products met standards. World leaders are moving to get supplies, but they are still grappling with the vast scope of the problem.

The White House announced over the weekend that it had organised 22 flights to airlift personal protective equipment. They are aimed at resupplying hospitals that are within 72 hours of running out of protective equipment, said Gregory Forrester, chief executive of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. “If any one of these planes don’t take off,” Forrester said, “that’s going to be an issue.”

China vacuumed up a big share of global supplies after the outbreak emerged in January. It imported 2 billion masks in a fiveweek period starting then, according to Chinese customs data, roughly equivalent to 2 1/2 months of global production. It also imported 400 million pieces of other protective gear, from medical goggles to biohazard coveralls. China has ramped up production to nearly 12 times its earlier level of 10 million a day. It was a huge mobilisation effort that involved redesigning freight train routes and sending large numbers of workers across the country in sealed buses. The Chinese government has encouraged global deals, but buying and selling masks is no easy feat.

Traders have to navigate confusion, fraud attempts, byzantine customs laws and other barriers. Once masks are found, they have to be transported. China’s cancellation of almost all of its international passenger flights to slow the spread of the virus has made it hard to move goods quickly. Half the world’s air cargo used to move in the bellies of passenger planes. China wants the US to provide the planes for any large-scale shipments of personal protective equipment. Ren Hong, an infrastructure development inspector at the National Development and Reform Commission, said China had only 173 air freighters while the US had more than 550.
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