Coronavirus sparks a ‘war for masks’ in desperate global scramble for protection

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A man reaches out for a mask at a Home Depot store in Los Angeles, California on January 22, 2020 as the Coronavirus entered the United States this week. – A new virus that has killed nine people, infected hundreds and has already reached the US could mutate and spread, China warned on January 22, as authorities urged people to steer clear of Wuhan, the city at the heart of the outbreak. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

By Tim Lister, Sebastian Shukla and Fanny Bobille, CNN

    (CNN) — As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across Europe and the United States, a global scramble for medical equipment such as respirator masks and gloves is underway. Several countries have accused the United States of trying to hijack their orders, but the details of who may have done what to whom are still murky.

In France they are calling it the “guerre des masques” — the war of the masks, and on Friday German officials also made allegations against the United States.

Andreas Geisel, a senior official in the state of Berlin, said that the US had committed an act of “modern piracy,” alleging that a consignment of 200,000 respirator masks destined for the Berlin police had been diverted to the US while in transit in Bangkok.

“This is not how you deal with transatlantic partners,” Geisel said, adding that “even in times of global crisis, no wild west methods should be used.”

German media report said the company involved in the Berlin order was US manufacturer 3M. But 3M told CNN Friday that the company “has no evidence to suggest 3M products have been seized. 3M has no record of any order of respirators from China for the Berlin police.”

The Berlin police told CNN they could not confirm whether an order had been placed with 3M. CNN has reached out to the White House and US Department of Health and Human Services for comment.

The US government’s invocation of the Defense Production Act has made life difficult for some suppliers with foreign contracts. The 1950 law gives the government sweeping powers during emergencies to direct industrial production. President Donald Trump criticized 3M for seeking to export protective equipment, tweeting Thursday: “We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks. ‘P Act’ all the way. Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing – will have a big price to pay!”

On Friday 3M responded: “Ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done.”

A senior White House official denied the administration was blocking 3M from sending shipments of respirators to Latin America and Canada.

As stockpiles dwindle and countries embark on what one French official called a “global treasure hunt,” governments are reluctant to allow protective and other equipment to leave their shores. Many governments say the prices being offered and demanded for personal protective equipment (PPE) are exorbitant.

On Friday, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said an order for ventilators that had already been paid for had been impounded in Turkey.

“There is a shipment of ventilators that for now are not going to leave Turkey because the Turkish government understands that it is a priority for the treatment of its patients in Turkey,” she said.

“[What] they do guarantee is that, within a reasonable period of time, within a few weeks, they will make that material available to Spain again,” González Laya added.

CNN has requested comment from the Turkish government.

Shortages in France

Numerous French officials have also spoken about the difficulty of securing deliveries as other customers outbid them. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe spoke Thursday of “difficulties sometimes in accessing the products from orders that are not always delivered. This is for a variety of reasons, including the huge demand that comes to China from the United States, from Europe, and indeed from the whole world.”

The presidents of two regions in France have alleged that American customers — without specifying who — had tried to pay Chinese suppliers three or four times the agreed price to get critical supplies diverted.

Renaud Muselier, president of the Sud region, alleged in several interviews that an order from one unnamed French region had been bought by the Americans for cash — and the plane that was due to fly to France had instead gone to the US.

Muselier was asked by CNN affiliate BFM-TV whether masks had been taken by Americans at Chinese airports. He replied: “Exactly,” before adding, “There is a foreign country that paid three times the price of the cargo on the tarmac. So the masks are gone and the region that ordered them has been destitute.”

Contacted by CNN, Muselier referred further questions to the French Foreign Ministry, which said Thursday it was looking into the reports.

Jean Rottner, the president of another French region, Grand Est, echoed Muselier’s remarks, telling French radio network RTL that it was a daily battle to secure orders. “It’s true,” he claimed, “that on the tarmac the Americans arrive, take out cash and pay three or four times more for the orders we have made, so it’s necessary to fight.”

Contacted by CNN, Rottner’s office would not elaborate on his claims, but a third regional president, Valérie Pécresse of Île-de-France, said the quest for masks was a global treasure hunt.

“We had made an order but were unable to complete it because others were ready to pay three times the market price,” Pecresse told radio network Franceinfo. She did not identify the “others.”

It’s unclear which US entity — federal, state or commercial — might have tried to secure orders destined for France. CNN reached out to the US Department of Health and Social Services Thursday but has not heard back. The US embassy in France, which only speaks for the federal government, said the US “has not purchased any masks intended for delivery from China to France.”

The Brazilian government has also claimed that US demand is vacuuming up available supplies. Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said Friday: “Our purchases [of respirator masks], that we expected to complete so that we could re-supply, a lot of them fell through.”

He added that the US was sending large cargo planes to China to bring protective medical equipment back to the country.

“The same thing happened with respirators,” Mandetta said. “We had bought them, they delivered the first part. The second, even with a contract, everything signed, with the money ready to pay, they said they no longer had them: ‘We can’t make that delivery.'”

Spanish and French officials say that logistical bottlenecks in China have compounded the problem of shipping PPE. Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa told a parliamentary committee in Madrid last week that everyone was trying to buy from China. “The market is crazy and the logistics are hard,” he said.

One French region, Centre Val de Loire, told CNN that its order had been diverted to Zhengzhou airport due to congestion at Shanghai airport. Several French regions told CNN that they’d had problems securing supplies. Bourgogne Franche Comté has ordered 4 million masks but are using two different suppliers in case one fails to deliver.

Orders blocked

In the meantime, governments are requisitioning what they can — testing existing relationships and alliances. Last month the French government said it was seizing all masks being made in the country.

One French company, Valmy SAS, was obliged to divert an order for PPE from the UK’s National Health Service, a regular customer. A representative of the company in the UK told CNN that the order had been blocked by customs officials at the French coast.

The World Health Organization has warned for several weeks that hoarding and shortages of protective equipment is leaving doctors and nurses “dangerously ill equipped” to look after Covid-19 patients. A month ago, its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “prices of surgical masks have increased six-fold, N95 respirators have more than tripled, and gowns cost twice as much.”

“Supplies can take months to deliver, market manipulation is widespread, and stocks are often sold to the highest bidder,” he said.

And demand has only multiplied since.

Several European governments have sounded the alarm about the difficulty of obtaining protective equipment for health workers. In Germany, the Bavarian state premier Markus Söder said Thursday that Germany would need “billions of masks” to fight coronavirus.

Spahn has said he wants Germany to become less dependent on masks made elsewhere. “We must become more independent of the world market, for the security of our citizens. That is one of the lessons of these weeks,” he said on Twitter.

In Spain, labor unions have complained about a lack of protective equipment for health workers. Last week Fernando Simon, director of the Center for Coordination of Emergencies and Health Alerts, said: “Although access to personal protective equipment is proving sufficient, it is true that at some points there may be critical moments.” PPE, he said, was a scarce global commodity and there was no easy availability.

Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa said last week: “Not enough masks for the global market are being produced; not enough ventilators are being produced,” Illa said. He was also critical of delays in a joint European Union program to buy PPE.

France, Spain, Germany and the UK are all trying to accelerate domestic production of PPE as scarcities bite. But that’s not something that can happen overnight in the volumes now needed as coronavirus stretches hospital resources across the world.

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