Barrick stockpiling supplies as mining industry braces for coronavirus

(Reuters) - Barrick Gold Corp said on Friday it would stockpile key commodities due to the coronavirus, drawing on its experience from Ebola outbreaks to prepare for the possibility the outbreak could shutter its mines.

FILE PHOTO: Workers walk at Barrick Gold Corp's Veladero gold mine in Argentina's San Juan province, April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci/File Photo

It was the latest defensive step by the mining industry, which is bracing for a prolonged drop in commodity prices and worried the contagion could fuel a rare simultaneous drop in both supply and demand for the minerals used to power the global economy.

Barrick, the world’s second-largest gold miner with operations across the globe, did not specify which “key commodities” it was stockpiling.

No employees or contractors at Barrick or peers have tested positive for coronavirus. Across the industry, miners have said they are encouraging employees to wash their hands more frequently, stockpiling masks and cleaning supplies, and restricting access to mine sites, steps in line with advice from the World Health Organization and other medical officials.

Globally, there have been over 98,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 3,300 deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

Barrick has put emergency medical procedures and facilities in place and is screening employees, contractors and visitors at each site. The company has not yet restricted employee travel.

South Africa, one of the world’s largest diamond and gold producers, reported its first case of the disease earlier this week.

While Chinese copper smelters in the past month have declared force majeure on deliveries of the red metal to customers, some factories in the country have begun to resume operations, fueling hope the virus may be slightly abating inside the world’s second-largest economy.

“The rest of the world is now the problem,” said Jefferies mining analyst Christopher LaFemina, who expects prices for gold, copper and other metals to bottom in the second quarter. “For China, the demand trajectory is upward.”

The number of new infections outside China now exceeds new cases in China, with Italy, South Korea and Iran seeing worrying spreads of the virus.

Freeport-McMoRan Inc, which runs Indonesia’s Grasberg mine, the world’s largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine, said it has no reported cases of the virus despite a rising number of cases in the country.

Lithium producers SQM, Albemarle Corp, Lithium Americas Corp and Livent Corp, which operate in South America, said so far operations have not been affected.

Attendance was down about 10% at this week’s Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada mining conference in Toronto, where Chile’s mining minister gave out masks with copper woven into the fabric. Copper has natural antimicrobial properties.

Reporting by Helen Reid in Johannesburg, Jeff Lewis in Toronto and Ernest Scheyder in New York; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Diane Craft