HONG KONG – The recent coronavirus (2019-nCov) scare has led to a rush of demand for masks that could soon strain pharmaceuticals and med-tech companies alike.

In Hong Kong, queues for surgical masks now snake around the block. If a pharmacy becomes known as having new stock of facemasks and hand sanitizers, it is rapidly besieged by desperate customers.

A customer in a long line in Hong Kong’s commercial district Causeway Bay, who asked to only be identified as Wong, told BioWorld – that finding protective surgical masks is becoming increasingly hard as supplies dry up, and also the remaining stocks are being sold at inflated prices.

On Feb. 1, Hongkong Post released a statement that about 25% of its inward urgent items pending delivery, about 3,000 packages, contained surgical masks. It has deployed extra manpower to handle the surge in logistical demand. This has not come close to halting the stampede to purchase these basic medical products.

“With the border to mainland China possibly closing and the high demand for the product over there, I’m worried that we won’t get new supplies coming our way anytime soon,” said Wong, who plans to share her one box of masks with colleagues and family. There have even been arrests made for mask-related scams.

Watsons, a major pharmaceutical store chain in Hong Kong, now has a digital queue number for their website even though it also says “Surgical masks have been sold out. We are sorry for any inconvenience caused.”

Before it sold out, Watsons had to limit each customer to one box of surgical masks and three items of either alcohol wipes/gel/spray. The chain issued an apology and said it is “strenuously trying to source additional stock of novel coronavirus prevention products in view of recent overwhelming demand.”

Regional demand is high

Outside of China, there is a massive demand in other Asian countries for similar products.

“Given the high demand, surgical masks and other hygiene products are in limited supply globally. We are working very hard to source products from around the world as soon as possible,” said Mannings, another pharmaceutical chain with stores throughout Asia.

Countries like South Korea and Singapore have since threatened to impose fines on those profiteering from sales of masks and sanitizers.

Even e-commerce platforms are getting involved. Singapore-based Qoo10 removed a listing on its site for 30 masks selling at SGD10,000 (US$7,224). Chinese tech giant Alibaba’s retail platform Taobao also asked its sellers to not increase prices and offered special subsidies to keep prices in line.

“There’s definitely a huge demand from China for gloves too. And the 28 countries that have reported cases are now employing defensive strategies, so demand has been over and above the usual,” Denis Low, the president of the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association (MARGMA), told BioWorld.

Low said that MARGMA has asked its 26 members to ramp up production to meet the global demand and they have complied.

“Between us, we can meet about 65% of the 330 billion pairs needed globally. Unlike masks, gloves are single use only so need to be changed more often,” said Low.

He said that MARGMA’s members have not increased prices to profiteer from the the crisis and that any changes in price are to cover increases in production costs.

Supply disruptions

Some companies in the med-tech industry have used the coronavirus panic purchases to highlight the need for self sufficiency.

Rajiv Nath, forum coordinator of the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry (AIMED), pointed out that 60% of the gloves that India uses are imported, even though it is the fourth largest latex rubber-producing nation in world.

“So, tomorrow China can’t supply more gloves due to its factories being shut and Malaysia gives priority to China, India does not have the capability to look after the health security of its citizens due to its apathy in protecting its manufacturing industry,” Nath told BioWorld.

“Not a single manufacturer bothers to produce these low-priced examination gloves, as the duty on these is 0%,” said Nath.

He feels that local manufacturers should become a reliable source in case of further global shortages.

“This is the same as the case with many other medical devices, whether it is thermometers or hot water bottles or adhesive bandages,” said Nath.

Pharma’s overall supply chain is showing the strain of the threat. Zurich, Switzerland-based trade network Kemiex released a survey that showed 85% of respondents expected a supply chain disruption, particularly regarding active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs).

One of the reasons may be the extension of the Lunar New Year holidays till mid-February in China as a way to contain the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.

“However, if these become further extended then drug manufacturers, mostly formulation plants, especially in India, that use the drug ingredients and make the tablets and capsules could be impacted. API makers in Europe and the U.S. have also warned that supply disruptions could result from a protracted delay in restarting production at plants closed by the Chinese government or prolonged transportation restrictions,” Sakshi Sikka, senior pharmaceuticals & health care analyst at Fitch Solutions, told BioWorld.

Sikka said she thinks the dependence of global drugmakers on China could affect medicine supplies and prices, if the lockdown in China continues.

“Supplies and prices of vitamins and antibiotics, for example, could see a spike, if the scale of the disease and the restrictions increase,” said Sikka. “Although most drug manufacturers are clustered in the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shandong along China's East Coast far from Wuhan in central China, the fact that the virus has been detected in every province makes such distance almost irrelevant.”

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