MUMBAI : Pharmacy retailers in India are scrambling to cope with a surge in demand for surgical masks and especially the N95 respirator following the coronavirus epidemic even as they expressed apprehension over its shortage in the country.
As of Tuesday, death toll due to coronavirus, which originated in China’s Wuhan district, touched 1,016 people while 42,638 have been confirmed with cases of the infection, according to Chinese health officials. So far, eight Indians have been reported to be infected with the virus.
There has been a spurt in the demand for N95 respirator, a face mask widely considered effective in preventing contracting the virus, since the outbreak. The respirator, which is mostly used in laboratories and industrial purposes and also by those residing in highly polluted cities such as Delhi, is said to filter at least 95% of airborne particles.
“There is a huge shortage of N95 masks. The product is hardly manufactured in India. There will be only about three-four manufacturers which make N95. They are mostly imported. And manufacturers which do not have orders do not keep stocks,” said Rajiv Nath, forum coordinator of Association of Indian Medical Device Industry (AIMED), an association of domestic manufacturers of medical devices.
According to AIMED, 241.3 million medical disposal masks are made in India each year with a spare capacity of about 62.2 million pieces. The association did not say how many N95 masks are made in the country.
“There is no history of regular demand, so when there is a crisis and spike and speculation, there’s hoarding that makes matters worse,” Nath said.
The government on 31 January banned exports of personal protection equipment including surgical masks and N95 after confirmation of the first coronavirus infection in India. The ban was revoked last week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered the Chinese government support in fighting the epidemic. However, exports of N95 masks are still restricted.
“Manufacturers are not able to cope up with the demand. Both local and overseas markets are asking for N95 masks. And there are very limited manufacturers for it in India. The situation is such that the one (pharmacy retailer) which has never sold the mask in last five years are getting inquiries. So the demand is fast outpacing its supply,” said Prasad Danave, president of the Retail and Dispensing Chemist Association (TRDCA).
Danave said most pharmacies have witnessed an almost fivefold jump in demand for N95 masks in the past month. “It is hard to put a number as the demand is abrupt but it would be easily 500% more than the regular demand. No manufacturer can overnight do this (quantum of production),” he said.
“Demand and supply is definitely not matching much. There is huge demand. Availability is an issue right now. But wherever there is demand, we are arranging as much we can. Shortage is definitely there,” said a senior official at a large pharmaceutical chain, who requested anonymity.
On Monday, union health minister Harsh Vardhan said in the Lok Sabha that India is well prepared to deal with the coronavirus threat. He said all precautions are being taken by the government to prevent the spread of this disease.