China, biggest mask manufacturer

As hospitals and governments hunt desperately for respirators and surgical masks to protect doctors and nurses from the coronavirus pandemic, they face a difficult reality: The world depends on China to make them, and the country is only beginning to share.

China made half the world’s masks before the coronavirus emerged there, and it has expanded production nearly 12-fold since then. But it has claimed mask factory output for itself. Purchases and donations also brought China a big chunk of the world’s supply from elsewhere.

Now, worries about mask supplies are rising. As the virus’s global spread escalates, governments around the world are restricting exports of protective gear, which experts say could worsen the pandemic.

Peter Navarro, an adviser to President Trump on manufacturing and trade, contended on Fox Business last month that China had essentially taken over factories that make masks on behalf of American companies. Beijing, he said, had opted to “nationalize effectively 3M, our company.”

In a statement, Minnesota-based 3M said most of the masks it made at its factory in Shanghai had been sold within China even before the outbreak. It declined to comment on when exports from China might resume.

China may be easing its grip as the world’s needs grow. Tan Qunhong, the general manager of a small manufacturer of disposable masks in central China, said that she had filled the government’s purchase orders and was starting to resume exports. The Chinese government is also shipping masks abroad as part of goodwill packages.

Other manufacturers say the Chinese government is still claiming all the masks that their factories in the country make. “Mask exports are still not authorized, but we are following the situation every day,” said Guillaume Laverdure, chief operating officer of Medicom, a Canadian manufacturer that makes three million masks a day at its Shanghai factory.

Much as it dominates manufacturing of cars, steel, electronics and other necessities, China is essential to the world’s supply of protective medical gear. Most of what it makes are the disposable surgical masks worn by health professionals. It makes a smaller number of N95 respirator masks, which provide more filtration for doctors and nurses.

The general public does not need to wear masks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But demand for surgical masks has skyrocketed in China, where the police require anyone who goes out in public to wear a mask.

Though companies say China is claiming virtually all mask output, the Chinese government said it had never issued a regulation prohibiting mask exports and was willing to work with other countries to share.

“We fully understand the stress and problems that relevant countries are facing at this moment regarding the epidemic, and we are willing to strengthen international cooperation,” said Li Xingqian, the vice director of international trade at China’s Commerce Ministry, in a written reply to questions.

China may be easing its grip as the world’s needs grow. Tan Qunhong, the general manager of a small manufacturer of disposable masks in central China, said that she had filled the government’s purchase orders and was starting to resume exports. The Chinese government is also shipping masks abroad as part of goodwill packages.

Other manufacturers say the Chinese government is still claiming all the masks that their factories in the country make. “Mask exports are still not authorized, but we are following the situation every day,” said Guillaume Laverdure, chief operating officer of Medicom, a Canadian manufacturer that makes three million masks a day at its Shanghai factory.

Much as it dominates manufacturing of cars, steel, electronics and other necessities, China is essential to the world’s supply of protective medical gear. Most of what it makes are the disposable surgical masks worn by health professionals. It makes a smaller number of N95 respirator masks, which provide more filtration for doctors and nurses.

The general public does not need to wear masks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But demand for surgical masks has skyrocketed in China, where the police require anyone who goes out in public to wear a mask.

Though companies say China is claiming virtually all mask output, the Chinese government said it had never issued a regulation prohibiting mask exports and was willing to work with other countries to share.

 

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