China virus triggers global rush for protective masks

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) - From South Korea to the Czech Republic, China’s coronavirus outbreak has triggered a massive surge in demand for protective masks, with factories scrambling to fill orders and shops selling out.

Workers produce face masks as the demand for their production rapidly increased and struggles to meet orders, at a Turkish manufacturer's facility in Istanbul, Turkey, January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The virus, which first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has killed 170 people and infected more than 8,000. It spreads through droplets from coughs and sneezes.

Fears of infection have sent people rushing to pharmacies. In Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, anxious residents queued for seven hours on Thursday only to discover stores had sold out of masks.

Manufacturers have had to ramp up production, with some running factories 24 hours a day.

“We are considering increasing shifts to two, three in order to meet demand but capacity is limited, there’s only so much we can do,” said an official at Kukje Pharma Co, a South Korean mask manufacturer.

The company has received a rush of orders for “tens of millions of masks” since Jan. 24, he said.

In China, many factories are reopening from their Lunar New Year break and calling back workers from their holidays.

CMmask, a Chinese mask maker that supplies 30% of the domestic market, is receiving daily orders for 5 million masks, more than 10 times its usual level.

Hu Qinghui, CMmask’s deputy general manager, said its stockpile of more than 10 million masks was exhausted last week. It has resumed production and called back more than 130 workers with offers to triple their wages.

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“The whole thing is so unexpected. We actually had a tough year in 2019 due to soft demand as air quality is getting better across the country,” Hu said.

However, just 40% of China’s mask factories, which supply half of global demand, have resumed production, an industry ministry official told the state-run People’s Daily newspaper.

As the global shortage worsened, Pardam, a Czech Republic mask manufacturer, has seen orders from Asia and Europe increase sharply.

“We are absolutely sold out,” said R&D specialist Jana Ruzickova. “Now we are trying our best to increase our production.”

“Demand ... increased in the last four days by 57,000%. This number cannot be accommodated, even by any well-established firm in the world,” said Pavel Malus from the Czech Nanotechnology Association.

In Turkey, Erol Memis of Era Respiratory Masks near Istanbul said the company had been working round the clock since receiving its first order from China on Thursday.

Era had also received inquiries from Switzerland, France, Belgium, Georgia, Armenia and Egypt. “It is not possible for us to complete every request,” Memis said.

Amid heightened anxieties about the virus, retailers and authorities have sought to stop hoarding and price gouging.

Taiwan announced a one-month ban on the export of specialist masks, while Singapore’s largest supermarket chain NTUC Fairprice has limited customer purchases.

In China, a Beijing drugstore was fined 3 million yuan ($435,000) for hiking mask prices by almost six times.

Meanwhile, the spike in demand has provided a massive boost for shares of mask makers, with Japan’s Kawamoto Corp up nearly six-fold to a record high. In South Korea, Kukje and Monalisa Co Ltd rose 58% and 86%, respectively.

(This story refiles to clarify attribution in paragraph 14)

Additional reporting by John Geddie in Singapore, Joseph Campbell in Hong Kong, Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul and Jan Lopatka in Prague; Editing by Miyoung Kim, Sam Holmes and Giles Elgood