March 24, 2020 / 2:34 PM / in 11 days

EU close to deal on face masks against coronavirus, after month of searching

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission said on Tuesday it is close to securing deals with suppliers of face masks, goggles, overalls and other gear to help meet an EU shortage of equipment essential to protect medical staff in the fight against the coronavirus.

The announcement came nearly a month after the commission, the European Union’s executive arm, launched a joint procurement process on behalf of 25 of the 27 EU states to acquire the protective equipment, demand for which has increased exponentially since the start of the outbreak.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU had secured concrete offers “of considerable scale” to supply protective equipment, in some cases exceeding the quantities that had been requested.

The commission did not disclose the names of the manufacturers, nor the precise amounts and prices of the gear being offered.

The World Health Organization said at the beginning of March that the entire world was facing a shortage of protective equipment and called for a large boost in production.

In Italy alone - the country with the highest number of deaths from the virus - government officials say they need 90 million masks a month.

Shortages of medical equipment are exposing medical workers to higher risks of contagion, which in turn endangers patients who could be infected by doctors or nurses.

In Italy, more than 5,000 medical staff have been infected since the beginning of the outbreak, nearly 9% of total recorded cases, data from the Italian health institute showed.

The offers were being assessed and the equipment should be available two weeks after EU governments sign contracts with the bidders, the commission said in a statement.

Disruptions in supply chains caused by the epidemic have caused delays in the delivery of drugs to Europe, officials said earlier in March.

Many drug components and medical devices are manufactured in China, where the outbreak emerged at the end of 2019.

Von der Leyen last week said China had offered to send more than 2 million masks and other material to alleviate shortages in Europe.

But days after the announcement, a spokesman for the EU executive was not able to provide information about the delivery of the offered items.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Robin Emmott and Alex Richardson

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