Two major corporations in the Netherlands have joined forces to start local production of medical face masks and PPE filter materials.
"It's important for continents to provide for their own needs," said Willem van der Leegte, president and CEO of VDL Groep.
Very early during the outbreak of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it rapidly became very clear that, around the world, one major challenge confronting health care and other workers was the overwhelming shortage of personal protective equipment, especially face masks.
How could this happen? Briefly, the world's mask manufacturing capacity was insufficient to meet demand, with the main bottleneck — according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — in the value chain in terms of inputs being the supply of meltblown PP fabric needed to produce the masks.
Further problems arose due to disruptions in transport and logistics, as a result of export restrictions and bans.
At the start of the crisis, approximately half of the world's face masks were produced in China. This, however, was not enough to meet demand when COVID-19 started surging in the country, necessitating the import of huge quantities of PPE.
In January 2020, China needed an estimated 240 million masks a day, but it could only produce 20 million. The country responded by significantly boosting production, with companies such as Foxconn and China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. also turning to the manufacture of masks, until by the end of March it was producing as many as 200 million a day.
According to an OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus report published on May 4, 103 companies were involved in stepping up production so that mask manufacturers would not face a shortage for their key input. Nonetheless, as the report also pointed out, while China was able to increase its production by a factor of 10, other producing economies recorded far more modest increases.
"Fundamental supply shortages exist, and current demand might be 10 times higher than world production capacity," the authors note.