BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission decided on Thursday to set up a stockpile of face masks, intensive care equipment and other essential medical gear to tackle shortages in Europe in the face of booming demand caused by the coronavirus crisis.
The measure comes after EU countries failed for weeks to find a seller of face masks and goggles after they launched a joint procurement for these items at the beginning of March.
The new strategic reserve would be complementary to joint procurement efforts which are underway, the EU commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic told a news conference.
It remains unclear when the needed equipment could be bought, given the current strain on manufacturers which are mostly based in China and other Asian countries.
To help Europe cope with the most immediate needs, China has offered to send 2.2 million masks and 50,000 testing kits to the EU, the head of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday.
The stockpile will be funded almost entirely with EU money, with a small fraction being covered with national resources of EU states.
The Commission said it had 10 million euros ($10.7 million) already available to build the reserve, and could use another 40 million euros if EU governments and lawmakers backed the extra spending.
The actual purchase of needed equipment would be carried out by one of the 27 EU states, which will also host the stockpile.
Many states have already offered to set up the reserve in their territory, Lenarcic said, a predictable move after France, Germany and a few other EU states which produce personal protective gear temporarily restricted exports to other EU nations at the beginning of the crisis, fearing shortages at home.
Among the gear that the EU intends to stockpile is reusable masks, vaccines, drugs, laboratory supplies and intensive care medical equipment such as breathing ventilators.
Under separate joint procurement procedures, the EU is currently assessing offers for gloves and body protection equipment, and is also already seeking to buy ventilators and laboratory equipment, including testing kits.
Joint procurements are meant to facilitate purchases, lower prices and avoid harmful competition among member states.
Many are also trying to acquire protective gear on their own. Last week China sent face masks to Italy, the European country worst-hit by the virus.
Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama