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23rd Oct 2020

Coronavirus

EU fighting shortages and faulty medical supplies

  • Several reports found that some member states have been victims of fraud when trying to purchase anti-virus gear, such as tests or masks (Photo: katie chao and ben muessig)

The European Commission announced on Wednesday (1 April) new "control material" that will allow laboratories to check the correct functioning of coronavirus testing kits and avoid false negatives, after a series of reports about faulty rapid tests from China.

A total of 3,000 samples of this control material would be dispatched to testing laboratories across the EU, enabling the verification of up to 60 million tests throughout the bloc.

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"Quick and reliable laboratory testing is fundamental to our strategy against coronavirus," said the commissioner for health, Stella Kyriakides, who believes that this will be essential when social distancing measures are lifted.

EU countries have reported shortages of ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing kits - especially in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and France where there are very high coronavirus patient loads requiring intensive care.

However, several stories have emerged revealing that some member states have been victims of fraud when trying to increase their availability of anti-virus gear, such as tests or masks.

While the Netherlands recently discovered that 600,000 face masks imported from China were defective, Belgian media reported on Tuesday that 100,000 masks coming from Colombia were useless and even contain "animal faeces".

Additionally, Germany has lost nearly six million masks at an airport in Kenya, according to Der Spiegel magazine.

And, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Spain have returned thousands of faulty rapid testing kits they had purchased from Chinese companies.

As a result, some countries have raised serious doubts about the quality of products imported from China - while the EU's anti-fraud office Olaf is investigating the sale of fake medical, personal protection, and hygiene products.

However, the Chinese foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, responded to these claims saying that "a large number of Chinese manufacturers are working around the clock to help other countries save lives".

"In fact, when we first began fighting Covid-19 at home [in China], some of the assistance China received was defective, but we chose to believe and respect the kind intentions of these countries," she added.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell believes that the coronavirus crisis has a geopolitical component, which has prompted both a "global battle of narratives" and a "politics of generosity".

"China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner," Borrell said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the US president Donald Trump insisted earlier this week that domestic production of ventilators will outweigh US demand, making it possible to send the excess to hard-hit European countries.

Increasing European supplies

Even though some countries blocked exports of medical equipment at the beginning of the crisis, the EU Commission has launched four different joint public procurements with 25 member states to tackle shortages.

The joint procurement covers masks, gloves, goggles, face-shields, surgical overalls, testing kits, laboratory equipment as well as medical ventilators and respiratory equipment.

However, the commission merely has a coordinating role, while member states purchase the goods and sign the contracts with the bidders.

The commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton, said also on Wednesday that public-sector buyers are under "immense pressure" in the current emergency to ensure the availability of personal protective equipment and urged member states to exploit the flexibilities of EU law.

"The current coronavirus crisis presents an extreme and unforeseeable urgency - precisely for such a situation our European rules enable public buyers to buy within a matter of days, even hours, if necessary," he added.

Meanwhile, guidelines for manufactures have been put in place, especially to increase the production of personal protective equipment, hand cleaners and disinfectants and 3D-printed medical products.

Additionally, MEPs from the internal market committee on Thursday (2 April) are expected to discuss with commissioner Breton the effectiveness of the joint procurement and other measures taken by the commission, as well as malpractices in e-commerce and the use of telecom data in the fight against coronavirus.

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