Saturday, 4 April 2020

Scramble for virus supplies strains global solidarity

The tiny republic of San Marino needed medical masks. Badly......

By Frances D'Emilio AP

Wedged next to two of Italy’s hardest-hit provinces in the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, San Marino had already registered 11 deaths by March 17 — a sizeable number in a country of just 33,000, and a harbinger of worse to come. So authorities sent off a bank transfer to a supplier in Lugano, Switzerland, to pay for a half-million masks, to be shared with Italian neighbours.

Next day, the truck returned empty. The company was refusing to provide the masks.

Said Dr Gabriele Rinaldi, director of San Marino’s Health Authority: “It was a very bitter lesson.”
It’s not clear whether the mask supplier, who was not identified, refused to deliver because another customer offered more. But what is clear, is that the oft-proclaimed solidarity among nations waging a battle against the pandemic has been tested — if not shattered — by national and corporate self-interest. 

A health official in France’s hard-hit eastern region said U.S. officials swooped in at a Chinese airport to spirit away a planeload of masks that France had ordered.

“On the tarmac, the Americans arrive, take out cash and pay three or four times more for our orders, so we really have to fight,” Dr Jean Rottner, an emergency room doctor in Mulhouse, told RTL radio.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris on Friday insisted that no one from the federal government bought masks destined for France. President Donald Trump has suggested, however, that states get their own medical equipment to fight the virus, setting off a mad scramble among state officials.

A similar squabble followed a shipment of masks aimed for Berlin police.

On Friday, Berlin’s top security official, Andreas Geisel, accused the United States of using “Wild West methods” after a delivery of hundreds of thousands of face masks destined for Berlin police was diverted to the U.S. en route from China. German media reported this happened as the masks were being transferred between planes in Thailand.

The U.S. embassy in Berlin didn’t immediately comment.

Scarce supplies of medical equipment are leading to growing competition within the U.S. and among nations, in what one French politician called a “worldwide treasure hunt.”

The governor of New York state, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, vowed to seize unused ventilators from private hospitals and companies, while President Donald Trump said he was preventing the export of N95 respirator masks and surgical gloves, a move he said was necessary to ensure that medical supplies are available in the U.S, despite them being legally purchased before Trump's new rules coming into force.

There are also unconfirmed reports that the US swopped in to buy up medical chemicals needed for the testing kits that had already been purchased by the United Kingdom, at five times as much.

The Spanish government confirmed on Friday that Turkey had stopped a delivery of much needed medical supplies, newspaper El Pais reported. Spain was still to receive respirators it had bought from China after the Turkish authorities “decided to keep them in case they may need them in their battle against coronavirus,” according to Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya.  

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