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U.S. lags behind in global race for coronavirus supplies from China

A German nurse prepares medical equipment at the University Hospital in Essen. Germany and other wealthy nations have faced fewer problems protecting medical workers from coronavirus than the U.S.
(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)

The U.S. has been consistently outpaced by global competitors in the race to get masks and other medical supplies from China, as other countries moved more forcefully than the Trump administration to secure vital material to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, interviews with business leaders in the U.S. and China show.

That has worsened supply shortages across the U.S. healthcare system, exposing American doctors and nurses to greater risk and leaving U.S. hospitals and clinics in markedly worse shape than those in much of Western Europe, East Asia, Canada or Australia.

“The fact is almost everyone else is having a much easier time,” said Isaac Larian, founder of toy-making giant MGA Entertainment, Inc., who has been doing business in China for decades and last month began working with Chinese manufacturers to get medical supplies for desperate American hospitals.

“You’ve got to be quick and nimble. … The U.S. has been very slow.”

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Like multiple importers and manufacturers interviewed for this story, Larian said medical supplies in China are available to those with the savvy to get them.

But the Trump administration, unlike governments in many other wealthy countries, waited months to develop a centralized, coordinated strategy to secure protective equipment from China, the world’s leading manufacturer of face masks, gowns and other personal protective gear.

At times, administration officials seemed more focused on criticizing American dependence on China than on moving urgently to secure products from there for beleaguered U.S. healthcare workers.

President Trump, who at first dismissed equipment shortages and accused medical workers of hoarding, has touted more recent efforts to speed production and delivery of supplies, including an effort to subsidize air cargo flights from China for U.S. medical distributors.

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The administration in recent weeks has also ordered some companies, including manufacturing giant 3M, to deliver to the U.S.

Yet even today, Trump continues to direct states to make their own arrangements to get medical equipment, a marked contrast with many other countries, which have worked more aggressively to leverage their centralized purchasing power to buy from Chinese manufacturers.

Kent Kedl, a Shanghai-based partner at Control Risks, a global risk and strategic consulting firm, who has been working in China since 1988, said European governments started contacting his office in early March about securing medical supplies.

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Kedl never heard from the U.S. government officials. Asked where the Americans have been, Kedl said: “I don’t know, to be honest. We’ve talked to American contacts at the embassy … and they say, ‘No, we’re OK. We’ve got it taken care of.’”

The Trump administration was also slow to clarify regulations about which protective masks could be imported from China, further holding up the flow of supplies to American hospitals and others on the front lines of the coronavirus fight.

Only in early April — weeks after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had advised hospitals with mask shortages to use bandannas for medical staff — did the Food and Drug Administration authorize the use of Chinese-made KN95 respirator masks, a commonly made derivative of the more trusted N95 mask.

That delay caused widespread confusion among medical providers, many of which were reluctant to use KN95 masks without FDA clearance, even though they were being widely used in other countries.

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As the coronavirus outbreak worsened here, Trump and other senior administration officials also stepped up criticism of China’s response to the disease outbreak, labeling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and accusing Chinese leaders of misleading the world about the virus’ origin and spread.

This inflamed bilateral relations already raw from a two-year trade war and further complicated efforts by U.S. companies to secure medical supplies from Chinese manufacturers and export them to America, business leaders in the U.S. and China said.

“It is coming back to bite us,” said one American importer with decades of experience working with Chinese manufacturers. “Chinese citizens and especially their government do not tolerate the disrespect. … Some here blame China for the supply shortages. I suggest we look in the mirror.”

The businessman asked not to be identified out of concern about antagonizing Trump, who has indicated he is prepared to punish critics, including governors who have criticized the U.S. coronavirus response.

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Li Lu, a Chinese American investor in Seattle whose foundation, Guardians of the Angels, secured millions of masks, shields and gowns to hospitals in China and the U.S., added: “The effort would have been a lot smoother and more effective if we had better relations on the government side.”

The swift spread of the pandemic has strained health systems in even some of the world’s wealthiest nations, including the United Kingdom and Italy, both of which have wrestled with serious shortages of medical supplies.

Shortfalls were particularly acute worldwide in the first two months of this year when the coronavirus outbreak was peaking in China, shutting down factories there that produce much of the world’s supply of masks and other protective equipment.

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As Chinese manufacturers began ramping back up in late February and early March, many wealthy nations moved quickly to begin lining up imports.

Germany, like the U.S., has a mostly private healthcare system and also like the U.S. gives states primary responsibility for disaster. Nevertheless, its federal government stepped in to coordinate procurement of masks and other supplies from China for the nation’s doctors and state and local emergency responders.

The effort has faced challenges, including quality issues that have also dogged medical supply imports to the U.S. during the crisis, said Dr. Stephan Hofmeister, vice president of the KBV, one of Germany’s most important physician organizations. “But it’s an organized system. It’s centralized. And once the federal government gets supplies, it disburses them throughout the country to medical offices.”

Since late February, the European Union has also been working to make bulk purchases of medical supplies for its member countries.

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Ker Gibbs, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, said the Italian and German governments both quickly coordinated large shipments of medical supplies earlier this year.

“Everybody’s going after the same supply,” Gibbs added, noting that other foreign chambers of commerce also have worked to secure material for their home countries.

But it was not until April 2 that the U.S. State Department contacted the American Chamber of Commerce for help vetting potential Chinese suppliers.

Several U.S. manufacturers working in China said they’ve also been perplexed by the lack of outreach from American government officials.

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“I’m sending airplane loads of material to the Canadian government without any problems at all,” said an executive with one major exporter whose company has been working in China for decades.

Another said he looked at supplying states in need of medical supplies, but found the procurement systems nearly impossible to navigate, a complaint echoed by numerous importers and manufacturers interviewed in Asia and the U.S.

“This is where government has to step in and take the bull by the horns and manage this thing,” said Michael Crotty, president of Golden Pacific Fashion & Design Co., a textile company based outside Shanghai that started sourcing masks for private U.S. buyers in mid-March.

“It should have been handled much earlier,” Crotty said.


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