Crates of masks snatched from cargo planes on airport tarmacs. Countries paying triple the market price to outbid others. Accusations of “modern piracy” against governments trying to secure medical supplies for their own people.
As the United States and European Union countries compete to acquire scarce medical equipment to combat the coronavirus, another troubling divide is also emerging, with poorer countries losing out to wealthier ones in the global scrum for masks and testing materials.
Scientists in Africa and Latin America have been told by manufacturers that orders for vital testing kits cannot be filled for months, because the supply chain is in upheaval and almost everything they produce is going to America or Europe. All countries report steep price increases, from testing kits to masks.
The huge global demand for masks, alongside new distortions in the private market, has forced some developing countries to turn to UNICEF for help. Etleva Kadilli, who oversees supplies at the agency, said it was trying to buy 240 million masks to help 100 countries but so far had managed to source only around 28 million.
“There is a war going on behind the scenes, and we’re most worried about poorer countries losing out,” said Dr. Catharina Boehme, the chief executive of Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, which collaborates with the World Health Organization in helping poorer countries gain access to medical tests.
In Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, many countries are already at a disadvantage, with health systems that are underfunded, fragile and often lacking in necessary equipment. A recent study found that some poor countries have only one equipped intensive care bed per million residents.
So far, the developing world has reported far fewer cases and deaths from the coronavirus, but many experts fear that the pandemic could be especially devastating for the poorest countries.
Testing is the first defense against the virus and an important tool to stop so many patients from ending up hospitalized. Most manufacturers want to help, but the niche industry that produces the testing equipment and chemical reagents necessary to process lab tests is dealing with huge global demand.
“There’s never really been a shortage of chemical reagents before now,” said Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, which represents producers and distributors of the lab tests used to detect coronavirus. “If it was just one country with an epidemic it would be fine, but all the major countries in the world are wanting the same thing at the same time.”
For poorer countries, Dr. Boehme said the competition for resources is potentially a “global catastrophe,” as a once-coherent supply chain has rapidly devolved into an arm-twisting exercise. Leaders of “every country” are personally calling manufacturing chief executives to demand first-in-line access to vital supplies. Some governments have even offered to send private jets.
In Brazil, Amilcar Tanuri cannot offer private jets. Dr. Tanuri runs public laboratories at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, half of which are “stuck doing nothing,” instead of testing health workers, because he said the chemical reagents he needs are being routed to wealthier countries.
“If you don’t have reliable tests, you are blind,” he said. “This is the beginning of the epidemic curve so I’m very concerned about the public health system here being overwhelmed very fast.”
Brazil is Latin America’s hardest hit country so far, with more than 10,000 confirmed cases and a testing backlog of at least 23,000. It is also the region’s most controversial player in the pandemic, with a president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has been an outspoken skeptic of the risks posed by the coronavirus.