A “global scramble” for anti-coronavirus medical equipment has broken out, a top Brussels official has warned, after days of angry claims by countries that cargoes have been suddenly diverted to the US.
Janez Lenarcic, the EU’s crisis management commissioner, said it was now “difficult to arrange an orderly procurement” to ensure crucial pandemic gear such as masks and ventilators went to those who needed them most.
His warning comes after a flurry of allegations by buyers in Europe and the Americas that pandemic supply cargoes from China intended for them have instead been sent to the US at the last minute. While Washington has denied any involvement, interviews with officials from other countries and manufacturers in China suggest a chaotic market of bruising bidding battles for scant resources.
“There is a global scramble for personal protective equipment and for other types of medical equipment,” Mr Lenarcic told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday. “This virus has spread faster and further than anyone expected, and this has resulted in a shortage of supply and a dramatic increase in demand.”
Tensions have been heightened after President Donald Trump last week used a law dating back to the Korean war to order 3M, the leading US medical equipment maker, to prioritise sales to the US government. This week the White House and the company reached a deal for 3M to import 166.5m N95 respirator masks from overseas, allowing it to continue to sell US-made N95s to Canada and Latin America.
Chinese mask-makers have told the Financial Times of an environment of soaring costs and intense competition from buyers. Xu Xueqiong, owner of Anhui Tianle International, a plastic bag and packaging producer that pivoted in February to manufacturing masks, said prices had “gone up by a dozen to 30 times, depending on how many you buy”.
“But we are not exploiting buyers because the costs for materials and shipments have both jumped,” she said. “We decide who to ship to first by seeing whose money arrives first. Full payment is required before shipment.”
The scramble for equipment has led to a growing number of international claims and counterclaims about missing or misdirected shipments.
Last week, the authorities in Berlin accused the US of diverting a consignment of respirators that had been ordered for the city’s police force from Bangkok to the US.
Martin Pallgen, spokesman for the interior ministry of the city, said the police had ordered the respirators from a German trading company specialising in medical supplies. But he said the delivery was cancelled “due to a US directive”, and that “the cargo aircraft with the shipment was not sent to Germany, but diverted to the US”.
He said the authorities were working with the police and the trading company to piece together the chain of events from when the respirators were ordered to “what exactly happened at the airport in Thailand”. Washington has denied any official involvement in the incident.
Initial reports in Germany said the masks had come from 3M. The company disputed those accounts, saying it had “no record of any order of respirators from China for the Berlin police”.
In France, officials in the two regions worst affected by the pandemic said they have seen supplies they ordered sent to the US instead. Jean Rottner, a doctor and also president of the Grand Est region, said Americans “take out their cash on the tarmac [of the airport] and pay three or four times the price for the supplies we have ordered”.
Valérie Pécresse, who heads the Île-de-France administration, said one shipment had been snatched “by the Americans” — although the US denies it bought any masks intended for delivery from China to France. One of Ms Pécresse’s officials told the FT there had been “very, very strong competition between buyers”, with French regions being gazumped because financial regulations prevent them from paying in advance for shipments of supplies.
“There was a commitment to sell and at the last minute, the seller changed his mind,” the official said of the contentious shipment.
In the Americas, another incident flared after a delivery of 600 ventilators purchased from an unnamed Chinese vendor by a group of impoverished states in north-eastern Brazil suddenly ended its journey in Miami during a stopover late last week.
Fábio Vilas-Boas, Bahia’s health secretary, told local TV that there was a “hijacking of equipment” by the US, while Flávio Dino, Communist governor of the state of Maranhão, claimed the ventilators “did not arrive because of a worldwide confiscation carried out by the United States”.
The US government has said it “did not buy or block any medical material or equipment from China for Brazil”.
A senior official in the Bahia state government told the FT that there was “no blockade” by US authorities, adding that the operation was “unilaterally cancelled by the Chinese supplier”. “Basically, someone paid more money,” the official said.
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