Concern about the new coronavirus spreading in China has triggered a run on global supplies of equipment used to protect health workers from infection, the World Health Organization said Friday, with stockpiles depleted and producers reporting four- to six-month waits for new supplies.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said demand for personal protective equipment, or PPE as it is called, is 100 times higher than normal and prices have skyrocketed to 20 times usual rates.
Tedros said “widespread, inappropriate use of PPE outside of patient care” is the cause, and he urged the public as well as all parties in the supply chain to adjust their practices to ensure fair and rational use of supplies.
“There is limited stock of PPE, and we need to make sure we get it to the people who need it most, in the places that need it most,” the WHO leader said.
Tedros spoke Friday about the issue with what is known as the “pandemic supply chain network” — manufacturers, distributors and logistics providers. Some companies, he said, have taken the decision to only supply masks to medical professionals.
The concern is less about paper surgical masks, the thin, pleated type seen in TV hospital dramas. It relates instead to hard, domed masks known as N-95 respirators, which are the types needed to protect against the spread of a respiratory pathogen in a hospital setting.
“At every stage of the supply chain there is a possibility for disruption or profiteering or diversion,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program. “So this is not an easy problem to solve. There are many players, both in the public and private sector.”
But he said it’s critical to ensure supplies are available for the health workers who are or will care for people suffering from infection with the new virus — provisionally called 2019-nCoV.
“We need to start looking at what is the minimum amount of supply that needs to be protected and directed to those institutions and systems that require it for the next number of months,” Ryan said. “If we start to see the normal civilian market being flooded with N-95 and other respirator-type masks and we see doctors and nurses in hospitals not having those, then there is a problem.”
The shortage doesn’t just threaten the safety of health workers responding to the coronavirus epidemic, Ryan said. There could be knock-on effects, with supply shortages impacting the response to Ebola, Lassa fever, and other dangerous pathogens that threaten the health of doctors and nurses who care for the sick.
Fortunately, Ryan said, the WHO had pre-purchased equipment for the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with enough PPE in stock to take the response through to April or May.