'Mask wars': Covid-19 outbidding allegations fly as demand soars

A third French official has accused US buyers in China of outbidding the country for vital supplies of masks, as a global scramble to source protective equipment heats up.

Valérie Pecresse, the influential president of the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris, described the race to get hold of masks as a “treasure hunt”.

“I found a stock of masks that was available and Americans – I’m not talking about the American government – but Americans, outbid us,” Pecresse said.

“They offered three times the price and they proposed to pay upfront. I can’t do that. I’m spending taxpayers’ money and I can only pay on delivery having checked the quality,” she told BFMTV. “So we were caught out.”

Pecresse said she had finally obtained a consignment of 1.5m masks thanks to the help of Franco-Chinese residents in the Paris area.

Her comments follow allegations from two other French regional heads of unidentified American buyers outbidding on mask shipments, including one case when a consignment was reportedly already “on the tarmac” ready to be flown to France.

“We really have to fight,” Jean Rottner, a doctor and president of the Grand Est regional council, told RTL radio. His area had been particularly badly hit, with local intensive care units inundated with Covid-19 patients.

Following reporting on his comments, Rottner said on Twitter that it was not his order of 2m masks that had been diverted, although it was “common practice”.

The French media have started calling the rush for equipment “mask wars”.

It was not clear if US buyers represent the government, individuals or companies. However, another official, Renaud Muselier, the head of the south-eastern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, told BFMTV that the buyers represented Washington.

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Responding to the accusations, a senior US administration official told the AFP news agency the reports were “completely false”. The US state department did not respond to a Guardian request for comment.

Governments have been accused of using underhand methods to acquire supplies in the battle against the coronavirus, including banning exports of protective equipment.

Brazil, too, has said recent attempts to purchase protective gear such as gloves and masks from China had fallen through. “There is a problem of hyper-demand,” the health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, said on Wednesday.

The US has the largest number of confirmed coronavirus case of any country with about 245,000 reported infections and more than 6,000 deaths. Domestic stocks of masks and other vital equipment are scarce.

On Thursday, the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, warned the state only had enough ventilators in its stockpile for six more days and was not expecting the federal government to fill the gap significantly.

Amid dire shortages in the US, private businesses have started to help procure masks, entering an already tense showdown between governments.

Robert Kraft, an American billionaire businessman and longtime friend of Donald Trump, lent his Boeing 767 jet this week to the Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker, who was trying to find a way to fly home 1m masks he had bought in China.

Speaking on Thursday in front of the plane, which is used by the Kraft-owned New England Patriots NFL team, the governor choked up with emotion.

“This gear will make an enormous difference,” the Republican governor said. “It’s not a secret that securing (personal protective equipment) has been an enormous challenge. And we will continue to come up with ways to chase more gear to keep our frontline workers and patients safe. We need more, we will always need more.”

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Inside the US, state and the federal authorities have also been competing for supplies.

Last month, Trump said states should source their own supplies but two governors, including Baker, said they were losing bidding wars to Washington.

“I’ve got to tell you that on three good orders, we lost to the feds,” Baker told Trump during a teleconference. “I’ve got a feeling that if someone has the chance to sell to you and to sell to me, I am going to lose on every one of those.”

Trump later said the federal government would attempt to drop bids if there was a conflict.

As global demand surges, so are suspicions about buying tactics, especially when shipments are delayed or cancelled.

A shipment of 10,000 masks bought for hospitals in Montreal, Canada, was mysteriously rerouted to the US state of Ohio last week, according to the Canadian tabloid Le Journal de Montréal.

The buyer, Fan Zhou, had flown them to Canada using the shipping company DHL, and was attempting to contact the firm to ascertain why they had been taken to Cincinnati.

Zhou did not suggest the masks had been purposefully diverted to Ohio.

Le Journal de Montréal cited him as saying it had been hard to source the masks, as the Chinese government took priority on any orders, meaning foreign deals needed to go through “non-traditional channels”.



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