No Coronavirus in Israel Yet, but Medical Masks Are Selling Out

Businesses and individuals are snapping them up, while Israel Chemicals is sending a shipment to China for its employees there

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A woman's eyeglasses are fogged up as she wears a face mask during a snowfall in Beijing.
A woman's eyeglasses are fogged up as she wears a face mask during a snowfall in Beijing, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

The new coronavirus hasn’t reached Israel, but it’s not just the government that is taking precautions against the deadly disease. Manufacturers and retailers, such the nationwide Super-Pharm and Be drugstore chains, report that sales of medical face masks have soared, with people not only snapping them up at stores but ordering them directly from manufacturers. Some retailers say they have run out of supplies.

Magen-Optic, an importer of personal protective equipment, said last week it had sold some 20,000 masks within a few days, compared with typical monthly sales of a few hundred units.

Rising demand for the masks has coincided with official measures to combat spread of the virus in Israel. The Interior Ministry has barred entry to all noncitizens who have visited China in the two weeks prior to arrival in Israel. The Foreign Ministry has warned Israelis against traveling to China and urged all Israelis already there to consider leaving.

On Sunday, Construction and Housing Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton asked the government to extend the time some 1,700 Chinese building workers can remain in Israel. They were scheduled to return to China at the end of last year, before the outbreak of the new coronavirus, but the ministry had not arranged for others to replace them and the spread of the virus means they cannot be replaced anytime soon.

Confirmed cases of the coronavirus stand at over 11,000, with 259 fatalities. While most of the victims are concentrated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak first occurred, the United States, Russia, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea have all seen growing numbers of cases. Stores, including online merchants like Amazon and Alibaba, which are famous for their logistics, have run out of supplies as panicked people buy masks for themselves and even for their pets.

The simplest and cheapest masks, which sell in Israel for 10 shekels ($2.90), don’t actually provide an effective defense against the virus. The N95 respirator mask, which is thicker than a surgical mask, does meet Health Ministry standards. Known in Europe as the FFP2, it sells in Israel for between 75 and 180 shekels.

“Ordinarily, these masks are worn at workplaces where there are hazardous materials and people need to protect themselves from air pollution and disease. We usually sell them to laboratories and industrial plants, But in recent days the phone hasn’t stopped ringing – there’s huge demand. Ordinary people are expressing interest in the standard and want masks that provide full protection,” said Noa Magen, vice president for operations at Magen Optic.

The fact that the new coronavirus hasn’t reached Israel hasn’t deterred them. “A lot of people that want to travel overseas are worried. They’re buying masks not just for themselves but also for family members and friends who live in places where supplies have run out,” she said.

Companies have also stepped up purchases for their employees. Israel Chemicals bought 20,000 face masks and 200 protective suits from Ritukh Safety Technologies for $50,000, reportedly cleaning out the supplier’s entire inventory of the items.

The masks ICL bought meet the FFP3, or P3 standard, which are used for protection against highly toxic or highly irritant particulates. They will be used by the company’s 2,000 employees in China, who are involved in manufacturing fertilizers and bromine compounds.

Magen warned against buying masks that don’t meet the higher standard. “There are a lot of people wrongly buying surgical masks at the drugstore chains. They protect the wearer from infecting other people, but they don’t protect the wearer against being infected by others,” she explained.

Because of the depleted inventories in China, overseas Chinese have been buying up N95 masks from the U.S. company 3M to send to friends and family back at home – or to resell them on the internet, often through the WeChat messaging app. As a result, 3M said it would step up production in China and in other factories around the world.

Brisk demand

Demand for masks has grown so quickly that fakes have begun to appear for sale online and prices have risen sharply. Taobao, a retail platform run by Alibaba, sold 80 million masks in two days last week before discovering that 80 third-party retailers were selling counterfeit masks.

To help China with its supply constraints, the Israel Chamber of Commerce in China, together with the Israeli-Chinese equity fund Innonation, has sent 100,000 masks, gowns and gloves to China. A quarter of them meet the Halyard N9 standard and the rest 3-ply tie-on surgical masks. The masks were donated by Israel hospitals and companies, such as the drip irrigation maker Netafim.

“We received appeals from Chinese officials due to the shortage of protective masks and we mobilized the resources to help them,” said Tslil Kleiman, Israel manager for IsCham.

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