As virus boosts demand, French face mask factory ramps up output

ANGERS, France (Reuters) - For one face mask factory outside Angers, western France, business is booming.

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It already makes about 100 million masks per year, but soaring demand due to the coronavirus outbreak means it is adding a third more staff and ramping up production to seven days a week.

The plant, owned by Canadian medical supplies group Medicom, is struggling to meet a flood of orders from pharmacies and hospitals in Europe and parts of Asia, primarily China - where the virus has killed more than 500 - Hong Kong and Singapore.

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“Since the virus outbreak in China, demand has been multiplied by five and we are trying to respond to that as soon as we can,” Medicom’s Chief Operating Officer Guillaume Laverdure told Reuters at the plant.

“We cannot answer all that (new) demand overnight, it will take a while to ramp up manufacturing.”

One of four Medicom factories producing the masks, it says it will hire 30 new staff on top of the 100 it already has and switch to a seven-day week by the end of February.

Honeywell, Moldex and 3M also manufacture face masks.

Though the World Health Organization only recommends their use by people who have virus symptoms and says they do not guarantee protection against infections, masks are also flying off pharmacy shelves.

In Paris, both Asian tourists and worried locals are stocking up.

Pharmacist Pascal Legrand, who sells Medicom masks, said the situation was “extremely tense”. He was looking for other manufacturers as supply was getting tighter and prices on some products had increased five- to ten-fold.

He said customers had been pre-ordering shipments, two of which, totalling 3,500 masks, had already been sold.

He said 80% of his customers were Chinese visitors in France looking to send masks back home to China, where stores had run out.

“Although some customers may be purchasing the masks out of paranoia, it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially when visiting crowded spaces and airports,” Legrand said.

France has six confirmed cases of coronavirus infection out of a global total of over 28,000. On Thursday, China said that 563 people had died in the outbreak since it started last month.

Reporting by Udi Kivity and Thierry Chiarello; Writing by Ardee Napolitano and Geert De Clercq; editing by John Stonestreet