BEIJING — Chinese officials have begun inspecting every shipment of N95 respirators, ventilators and other medical supplies for quality issues before export, a policy likely to delay the arrival of critical gear at hospitals around the world that are struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
The policy, announced by the General Administration of Customs on Friday, produced immediate delays on Saturday as manufacturers, freight agents and traders tried to understand how to comply. Depending on the city, they said, the delays could range from a few hours to a few days or longer as government officials rush to comply.
The new customs policy comes after a series of complaints from Europe that medical supplies from China had quality problems. Chinese officials have countered that many of these complaints involved industrial respirators that were purchased for medical use but were not designed to meet those standards.
The new delays come as countries have complained that a global free-for-all for personal protection equipment has left acute shortages for doctors and nurses. These countries include the United States, Spain and, most recently, Russia.
China is the world’s dominant producer of a wide range of medical supplies. Its manufacturing lead has widened in many sectors as it has engaged in a nationwide mobilization of medical supplies production since late January, when Beijing ordered a lockdown in the city of Wuhan to curb the rapid spread of the coronavirus there.
China’s daily production of masks and respirators soared from 10 million at the start of February to 116 million just four weeks later.
The Chinese customs agency said on Friday that it would assess the quality of medical supplies before export, adding to the checks that exporters already face. The agency had been checking whether medical supplies were accurately counted, whether the goods infringed on foreign patents and whether the documents accompanying shipments were fraudulent.
The agency gave no indication how long the quality testing might take.
Many factories already have their own quality inspectors. The government’s new rules require an additional check by customs inspectors or other government inspectors acting on their behalf.
The new rules cover China’s exports in 11 categories: medical respirators and surgical masks, medical protective clothing, infrared thermometers, ventilators, surgical caps, medical goggles, medical gloves, medical shoe covers, patient monitors, medical disinfection towels and medical disinfectants.
Wen Guicheng, the vice general manager of the Hubei V-Medical Products Company, a manufacturer of caps, masks and gloves based in the southwestern suburbs of Wuhan in central China, said that his company was trying to avoid delays by speaking with customs officials before exporting more goods.
Noah Blake, a respirator trader in Shanghai, said that one of his shipments had already been delayed by the new rule, but added that the new regulation would help make sure that public health agencies and consumers could count on medical supplies imported from China.
The new rules might also help some factories export what they make.
Beijing’s initial response two weeks ago to quality complaints was to require that factories producing medical supplies be certified by the government before they could export their goods. That policy caused export delays at many factories that previously manufactured everything from winches to cranes but suddenly switched to making medical equipment after the lockdown of Wuhan on Jan. 23.
Those factories typically do not have medical certification from Beijing, which can take months to obtain.
If these factories are now allowed to export medical supplies that pass quality inspections, then that could allow many more companies in China to export products needed to fight the pandemic.
The customs agency announcement on Friday did not specify whether the new mandate was in addition to the requirement for factory certification or instead of it.
As China appears to have brought the virus mostly under control within its borders, it has ramped up exports of safety gear for medical workers fighting the outbreak. China imported two billion masks and 400 million other items of personal protection equipment for its own health care workers during the dangerous and arduous task of containing the virus, particularly in Wuhan.
Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman, said at the ministry’s daily news briefing on Friday that from March 1 through April 4, China exported 3.86 billion masks, 2.8 million coronavirus test kits, 2.4 million infrared thermometers and 16,000 ventilators.
China has mounted a humanitarian aid blitz to allay international criticism that it was slow to alert the world to the dangers of the pandemic. China has donated or sold medical gear to more than 100 countries, including Italy, Nigeria and the United States.
In the United States, the debate over the quality of Chinese medical supplies has centered on respirators that are manufactured to meet China’s KN95 technical standard, which is slightly different from the N95 standard commonly used in North America. The Food and Drug Administration announced on April 3 that it had approved the emergency use of KN95 respirators in medical settings in the United States.
Coral Yang contributed research.
Updated April 11, 2020
When will this end?
This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
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