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China dominates the pandemic PPE market. What does that mean for U.S. as virus surges?

During the coronavirus pandemic, the world has become reliant on personal protective equipment, or PPE. Most of this essential gear, from masks to gowns to goggles, comes from China -- and experts in the U.S. say this foreign dependence is problematic. Bur for now, the country where the virus originated is producing much of what's needed to fight it off. Special correspondent Patrick Fok reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Made in China, it's a phrase that has become an almost daily reminder of the global economic challenge facing the U.S.

    In the pandemic, one thing has become clear. The world's reliance on personal protective equipment, or PPE.

    As correspondent Patrick Fok reports, a great deal of this much needed gear, from masks to goggles, comes from China, and the country where the virus originated now produces much of what is needed to fight it off.

  • Patrick Fok:

    It may only be manned by a small number of workers, but this PPE production plant in Chongqing, Southern China, churns out half-a-million disposable masks every day.

    Masks are by far the most sought-after type of PPE, and these commonly seen blue ones are number-one sellers.

  • Paul Wang:

    They're flat. The typical three-layers surgical masks, that will be the most popular one, this one.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Paul Wang is CEO and founder of LyncMed. It's a major global distributor of medical gear, including PPE.

    According to the Washington, D.C.-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, even before the coronavirus pandemic began, China was the largest exporter of PPE, accounting for nearly half the world's supply of face masks, gowns and goggles.

    Its share of the market's grown even larger since. Wang says his company's sales volumes are 10 times higher than a year ago. And after a slight lull over summer, as the virus subsided in many places, orders are now coming back with ominous strength.

  • Paul Wang:

    Beginning of September, and we already saw the early — early indicator of the second wave is picking up, because now the weather is coming — cooling down.

  • Patrick Fok:

    At the height of China's battle with the coronavirus in March, LyncMed, like many other overseas distributors of PPE, called back inventories from warehouses around the world.

    Much of it was diverted to front-liners fighting the virus in Hubei province and the virus epicenter, Wuhan.

    But domestic demand for PPE has slowed steadily since March, as China has gotten its outbreak under control. LyncMed has shifted its focus back towards buyers elsewhere, including the U.S., which, like many other countries, continues to grapple with shortages.

    A global backlash against China over the COVID-19 pandemic has led to accusations that Chinese authorities hid the severity of the outbreak so that it could get a head-start on stocking up on the medical supplies it needed to respond to the crisis.

    And there are fears China might restrict the distribution of gear to countries that have criticized its handling of the disease.

    Joe Mazur is an analyst at the intelligence group Trivium China.

  • Joe Mazur:

    But, in reality, we haven't seen a lot of that. China has, in general, been pretty liberal about exporting its PPE once its own domestic needs have been met.

    And I think that's for a couple of reasons. One is because the Chinese government sees the export of PPE as a big public relations coup.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Reports say exports of virus-related goods, including PPE, helped offset a drop in other products shipped to the U.S. as a result of tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.

    Total exports were down only slightly in the first eight months of the year, compared to the last, according to official Chinese data. Health care officials say the shortage of PPE in the U.S., by contrast, is likely to persist, in the absence of a strategy to address the problem.

  • Tinglong Dai:

    It's as important as having a local fire station in your town or in your city.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Tinglong Dai is an associate professor specializing in health care ecosystems at the John Hopkins University Carey School Of Business.

    He's been researching the critical need for the U.S. to reshore PPE production.

  • Tinglong Dai:

    Just imagine you have a fire, and you don't have a truck a few miles from you, and you have to rely on a truck from a nearby state. You cannot deal with the fire. By the time the fire trucks arrive, your house has already burned down.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Both President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden have championed bringing back production to the U.S. Dai says it needs to be a long-term commitment.

  • Tinglong Dai:

    We need engineers, managers, quality controllers, and technicians, and workers. When we need them, we cannot just train them within a few weeks. It takes years to get the right people, to get the right machines.

  • Patrick Fok:

    China was able to ramp up production when it needed because of a plan it previously laid out to be self-sufficient in key industries by 2025.

    State support saw nearly 70,000 companies register to either trade or manufacture face masks this year. But reports also suggest that may have led to quality control problems. Health officials in the U.S. and many other parts of the world criticized China over faulty equipment and substandard masks. Shipments have been pulled.

  • Joe Mazur:

    There has been a big spike in demand for this product, and China has the means to produce it.

    And so what that does is, that attracts a lot of people looking to capitalize on that disparity. And, unfortunately, some of them are bad actors who are producing subpar equipment.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Chinese regulators have tightened quality control over medical supplies. But that hasn't stemmed the problem entirely.

    LyncMed's made serious efforts to ensure the goods it distributes comply with health standards at home and abroad. It's had to brush aside some of the negative attention to Chinese-made goods.

  • Paul Wang:

    This is part of life. This is part of the politics. So people finger-point at each other for different reasons.

    I just accept it. This is the nature. And I still and my whole team feels very proud of it, what we are doing, and we are saving lives.

  • Patrick Fok:

    And as long as the pandemic continues, people across the world are likely to depend on China to supply the equipment needed to keep them safe.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Patrick Fok in Beijing.

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