BOGOTA, Colombia – Medical supply manufacturers in Argentina have seen a surge in demand for their products from China, which is reaching out globally for the goods it needs to deal with the outbreak of COVID-19.
“By mid-January, there was a surge in demand for face masks from our regular clients. We had an unexpected surge and then … the day after, news of [COVID-19] broke,” Olga Torres, sales and marketing manager at Pademed, of Lanús, Argentina, told BioWorld.
Pademed is a family-owned company that supplies the Argentine market with disposable medical supplies. The company has faced surges in demand after other disease outbreaks, such as the swine flu. Lessons were learned from those experiences.
“We are facing huge demand for face masks, but [now] we are more prepared than before, and we are not stopping the supply,” said Torres. “However, if we are now reaching other countries, it is because we are dealing with Argentina first.”
To tackle the COVID-19 outbreak, China has put entire cities on lockdown and shut down factories by extending the Lunar New Year holidays. Demand for basic medical supplies has surged, and supplies have dwindled to the point that the country is looking globally for products for hospitals and the public.
The resulting spike in demand in Argentina could prove to be a boon for medical supply companies, which are seeing sales of their products skyrocket. But the demand for products for export must be balanced against the need to supply domestic consumers first.
A main concern for local authorities and companies around the world is to ensure that they have the supplies they need first before stepping up to export products. It is only after local supplies are secured that companies are willing to export to foreign markets, such as China’s Hubei province.
One of the largest and most well-established face mask manufacturers is 3M, of Saint Paul, Minn. 3M makes the N95 face mask, which is comprised of different layers and levels of protection against particles and bacteria. There has been huge demand for the N95 masks.
“Global demand for supplies used to treat and help protect people, such as respirators, is currently exceeding supply. 3M is ramping up production at its manufacturing facilities around the world, including in the U.S., Asia and Europe, as quickly as possible,” 3M said.
However, the U.S. company is highly reliant on its manufacturing sites in China, and they are feeling the impact of current outbreak and the consequent slowdown in production.
As the shortage of face masks hits shelves in China and areas such as Hong Kong, companies like Pademed are trying to cope with the demand.
“We’ve seen a surge of between 60% and 75% of usual demand. I’ve [received] emails and WhatsApp messages asking for [anywhere] from 100,000 units to 10 million units of face masks, which is a lot, considering the production levels in Argentina. Although that´s a small figure for the Chinese population of 1.4 billion,” said Torres.
The surge in the demand comes at a time when Argentinians are working at half speed, with many workers still enjoying summer holidays.
“Health doesn’t take vacations. In March, we will resume full speed, and all the workers will be back,” said Torres.
A face mask can cost between ARS$20 ($0.33) and ARS$30 (US$0.49), and despite Pademed having directly exported in the past to places like Taiwan – during the swine flu outbreak – the demand from abroad is higher than at any time in the past.
Chinese communities around the world have organized supply chains to help their home country with face masks during the outbreak, which has so far has resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and 40,000 people infected in China alone.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that people looking after suspected COVID-19 patients uses face masks. It also advises the use of masks for people coughing or sneezing to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water,” WHO said.