An estimated 20-30 million surgical masks have been imported to Israel since the beginning of March. Three weeks ago, the Health Ministry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the public to start wearing masks in public spaces, and since then, it has become mandatory, with a fine for noncompliance.
Even beforehand, the public, frightened of the coronavirus contagion, began buying up masks. These include cheaper surgical masks being sold for 2.50-5 shekels (less than $1.50), as well as higher quality N95 or KN95 models, which can sell for as much as 10-40 shekels (about $3-$11.50) each
And yet, while the law has turned masks into a staple product in Israel, no one is regulating the quality of masks being sold. Professionals say that some of the masks sold in Israel are fakes that may not offer their users the protection their packages claim to.
While many products imported from abroad, including phones, diapers, laundry detergent, dish soap, floor cleaner, disposable dishware and toys, are required to go through checks by the Israel Standards Institute before they can be sold publicly, and foods and toiletries are subject to review by the Health Ministry, no one checks imported masks.
“Anyone can contact a supplier in China and ask it to print N95 or KN95 on the masks, and no one will know,” says Roni Dovrat (no relation to this reporter), who operates an import business, referring to the respective American and Chinese standards for masks that filter out 95% of particles. “Over the past few weeks, I've imported masks from China of all types – surgical, with a filter and without filter, and I have no idea if they’re actually any good.
“No one will go to the factory and tell it to make counterfeit masks, but everyone has become mask importers now and no one knows anything about the field, because it’s new to all of us. It could be that I’m importing good masks, and it could be that they’re counterfeit and I don’t know, because there’s no standard and no tests. Even the paperwork isn’t being reviewed and there’s no demand that it be translated into Hebrew. You simply go to customs, pay VAT and start selling them,” says Dovrat.
He compares the experience to a time when he imported dishwashing detergent from Georgia, and the Standards Institute discovered it was too diluted and lacked the proper quantity of active ingredients. “They saved me,” he says. “With the masks, no one is checking, and it’s scary.”
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With diapers or dish soap, importers bring the product to the Standards Institute for an initial check, then send in a sample from each shipment imported to Israel, says Dovrat. There’s no such policy with masks, he says.
“I don’t understand the logic,” he says. “People buy a mask and think they’re protected, but you go and guess what that mask’s worth.”
Nearly all the masks sold in Israel, with the exception of a few surgical masks, are imported. Avi Buskila, CEO of Sarel, the medical equipment acquisitions company for Israel’s government-owned hospitals, explains what a problem this is.
“When you import a toy, it needs to go through the Standards Institute, but anyone can import a mask of any type without the mask ever being physically tested,” he confirms.
When Sarel carries out acquisitions for Israel’s medical teams, the company gets the goods from the factory abroad and conducts its own tests and has additional tests carried out via the Health Ministry, Buskila explains.
“We’ve received paperwork from suppliers abroad but then found that the product didn’t stand up to our tests,” he states. “Nowadays Israel’s market has a huge number of mask retailers, including individuals selling imported masks via websites or Facebook pages, but there’s no guarantee that the masks filter as promised,” he says.
“I’ve seen people buy masks meeting the FFP1 standard, even though the World Health Organization says this standard offers no protection against coronavirus. I’ve seen masks whose markings indicate they were manufactured by [the reputable] M3, but after testing turned out to be counterfeit.”
Despite the need for regulation, government ministries are passing the blame to each other.
The Health Ministry stated, “Masks for public use are considered protective wear, as opposed to medical equipment. So long as they don’t serve medical teams, they’re not under the Health Ministry’s purview and they don’t need to be registered with the ministry before being sold.”
Ministry officials said they recommended that the masks be subject to Standards Institute review before being sold, and said they had checked with this authority to ensure that it was prepared to conduct such tests. However, it also called on the Economy Ministry to condition mask import on Standards Institute testing.
Economy Ministry officials passed responsibility back to the Health Ministry, stating, “The Health Ministry, as the ministry responsible for public health, is authorized to set standards for protective masks or to initiate legislation by asking the Standards Institute to draft official standards, as it has done with other health-related products. Every regulator is entitled to do that within his field of responsibility,” it stated, adding that it wasn’t the Economy Ministry that needed to be placing these demands on the Standards Institute.
Yafit Tal, owner of the professional acquisitions company Talalim, says that when ordering masks from Chinese manufacturers, the factories ask whether the masks are for medical or civilian use. “The difference in quality is large, and the difference in price is about half a shekel per mask, which is a lot given that masks are sold for about 3 shekels each,” she said, or about 85 cents.
A shortage and a flooded market
Industry sources speculate that the issue hasn’t been addressed so far because Israel faced a shortage of masks, and the Health Ministry wants civilians to start wearing masks of any sort, regardless of the quality.
Daniel Lev, CEO of Sderot-based company Sion Medical, which manufactures surgical masks, says his company is planning to start manufacturing N95 masks as well.
“When the pandemic began, the Chinese understood that they needed a massive quantity of masks, and they converted factories to start manufacturing them – and the market was flooded with masks of unknown quality. With time, the Chinese understood that quality is important, and all those erstwhile textile manufacturers that had started producing medical equipment began exporting their goods to countries without standards or tests,” he says.
China started to bring things under control after some 700,000 unusable masks were sold to the Dutch government, causing an outcry, says Lev, noting that similar incidents occurred with Belgium and Britain. As of April, China has started regulating which factories are licensed to produce masks, and setting standards for mask exports, says Lev.