Coronavirus sparks a ‘war for masks’ in desperate global scramble for protection

CNN  — 

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across Europe and the United States, a global scramble for medical equipment such as respirator masks and gloves is underway. Several countries have accused the United States of trying to hijack their orders, but the details of who may have done what to whom are still murky.

In France they are calling it the “guerre des masques” – the war of the masks, and on Friday German officials also made allegations against the United States.

Andreas Geisel, a senior official in the state of Berlin, said that the US had committed an act of “modern piracy,” alleging that a consignment of 200,000 respirator masks destined for the Berlin police had been diverted to the US while in transit in Bangkok.

“This is not how you deal with transatlantic partners,” Geisel said, adding that “even in times of global crisis, no wild west methods should be used.”

A German media report said the company involved in the Berlin order was US manufacturer 3M. But 3M told CNN Friday that the company “has no evidence to suggest 3M products have been seized. 3M has no record of any order of respirators from China for the Berlin police.”

The Berlin police told CNN they could not confirm whether an order had been placed with 3M. CNN has reached out to the White House and US Department of Health and Human Services for comment.

The US government’s invocation of the Defense Production Act has made life difficult for some suppliers with foreign contracts. The 1950 law gives the government sweeping powers during emergencies to direct industrial production. President Donald Trump criticized 3M for seeking to export protective equipment, tweeting Thursday: “We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks. ‘P Act’ all the way. Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing - will have a big price to pay!”

On Friday 3M responded: “Ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done.”

A senior White House official denied the administration was blocking 3M from sending shipments of respirators to Latin America and Canada.

As stockpiles dwindle and countries embark on what one French official called a “global treasure hunt,” governments are reluctant to allow protective and other equipment to leave their shores. Many governments say the prices being offered and demanded for personal protective equipment (PPE) are exorbitant.

On Friday, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said an order for ventilators that had already been paid for had been impounded in Turkey.

“There is a shipment of ventilators that for now are not going to leave Turkey because the Turkish government understands that it is a priority for the treatment of its patients in Turkey,” she said.

“[What] they do guarantee is that, within a reasonable period of time, within a few weeks, they will make that material available to Spain again,” González Laya added.

CNN has requested comment from the Turkish government.