Mask production full speed ahead

By Zhang Hongpei Source:Global Times Published: 2020/2/3 22:58:40

Industrial chain, branding need to be improved: manufacturers

An employee of Chinese face mask maker Dasheng Health Products Manufacture Co works at the company's factory in Shanghai, East China on Friday. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Recently, 30-year-old Beijinger Jia has been rushing to place a face mask order (each person can purchase a maximum of 10 pieces)  each morning for his family on a smartphone supermarket app.

"I was lucky this morning to arrange for the collection of 10 masks from a physical supermarket, which is not far from my home," Jia told the Global Times on Sunday. "Yet I do not have luck every day," he noted. China is currently going through an unusual period as the country fights the coronavirus which originated in Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province.

Jia had purchased some surgical face masks on China's ecommerce platform before the weeklong national holidays, when the coronavirus began to spread rapidly, but was recently told by the vendor that his order had been canceled as the masks had to be redirected to Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

As of press time on Monday, 17,335 cases of the novel coronavirus had been confirmed and 361 people had died across the country. 11,177 of the confirmed cases came from Hubei Province, according to the dynamic statistics of the epidemic.

Amid the rapid outbreak of the coronavirus, face masks have become a necessity for the public to protect themselves. 

Searching for masks both online and offline has caused anxiety among Chinese people as there have been shortages during the holidays. Masks, which were sold for less than 1 yuan (14 cents) a piece before the outbreak, can now be seen priced up to 20 times that value, yet remain scarce as they will sell out as soon as new supplies hit the shelves.

Shortages remain

China's total mask output has topped 10 million pieces daily as domestic mask producers resume 60 percent production capacity, said the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

The output of N95 masks, which offer better protection against the spreading novel coronavirus, stood at 600,000 pieces a day, according to MIIT senior official Cao Xuejun at a press conference on Sunday.

As a major mask-producing country, China makes around 50 percent of the world's masks. However, the current outbreak has increased public demand and placed great pressure on the supply end.

MIIT has been urging related enterprises to resume production and coordinate the supply of raw materials and key components in an effort to ensure the stable supply of medical equipment to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Shanghai Dasheng Health Products Manufacture Co, which mainly produces N95-standard masks, has been running 24 hours a day amid the shortage of medical equipment. The factory can currently produce about 80,000 masks each day. That is a sharp increase compared to its capacity of 30,000 to 40,000 before the holidays began on January 24, according to Wu Shengrong, chairman of the Shanghai-based firm.

Wu told the Global Times that the company has delayed exports to foreign customers following negotiations, in a bid to fully support China's battle against the virus.

"The country's daily demand for masks can reach 50 to 60 million compared to a supply of about 20 million," said Cao Jun, general manager at the Zhejiang-based Lanhine Corp. Lanhine is mainly engaged in the production of face masks and protective face shields.

"Our daily output can now reach 150,000 surgical face masks, but capacity has still not fully recovered [since the holidays]," Cao told the Global Times on Sunday.

The company has urged workers who have already returned home for the holidays to return to the production line, offering four times their regular salaries.

Key health products like N95 masks are still facing heavy shortages, and the current inventory is prioritized for Hubei.

In Wuhan, the most severely affected region in Hubei, the mask consumption rate is much higher than it is in the rest of China. Doctors and nurses - totaling about 100,000 across the city - need to change their masks every four to six hours, meaning a total of 400,000 N95 masks are needed each day.

As of midnight on Saturday, domestic firms had delivered 117,000 protective suits, 131,000 N95 masks and 110,000 protective goggles in total to Hubei, data showed.

Long-term view

With demand surging in the face of the ongoing epidemic, the domestic mask industrial chain has measured up to the challenge after 17 years of development following the SARS outbreak in 2003. 

A key material for face masks is melt-blown, non-woven cloth. A ton of such cloth can produce 1 million surgical masks or 500,000 N95-standard masks, according to Yang Wenjuan, head of research and development at Teda Filters Co which is based in North China's Tianjin Municipality.

Teda Filters has been working overtime to provide the material to domestic mask producers struggling to meet market demand, Yang said.

The company introduced the first dual melt-blown line in 2009, quickly increasing its capacity from 3,000 tons to 4,500 tons. As the H1N1 pandemic broke out that year, the cloth saw prices surge to 130,000 yuan per ton from its regular price of 20,000 yuan.

But when the pandemic was controlled in July of the same year, most producers slowed their production lines, leading to futile investment.

The same scenario was repeated between 2013 and 2014, when air pollution was severe.

"Some domestic producers are short-sighted and only pursue profits amid those events instead of thinking about how to make good face masks in the long run," Cao noted, adding that only by focusing on quality can domestic brands make a footprint in the fierce competition, particularly that from foreign brands.

A Chinese netizen named Kai on Sunday said on Sina Weibo that, reflecting on the current epidemic, it is not difficult to build a makeshift hospital or a mask producer in a short time but it is hard to create a smooth and complete industrial chain.

The Chinese government will purchase excess products from health goods enterprises following the coronavirus epidemic, an official with the National Development and Reform Commission said on Monday, encouraging qualified enterprises to organize production at full capacity.


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