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Centre stares at shortage as sole procurer of COVID-19 gear struggles to supply

Shortage could put doctors and healthcare professionals at risk while Centre may have to pay through its nose for emergency purchases

twitter-logoJoe C Mathew | March 21, 2020 | Updated 08:14 IST
Centre stares at shortage as sole procurer of COVID-19 gear struggles to supply
There are about 100 local manufacturers of PPE kits but few have inventory to scale up at short notice

Public sector company HLL Lifecare Ltd, the government's sole procurement agency for personal protective equipment (PPE) kits for use by healthcare professionals, seems to be struggling to match the supply-demand gap in wake of the rising demand. HLL has the Health Ministry's sole mandate to source 7.25 lakh body-coveralls (also called hazmat-or hazardous materials-suits); 60 lakh N-95 masks and 1 crore 3 Or 2-ply face masks.

However, it has managed to place full supply order only in the case of body-coveralls. For the rest, the company has been able to place orders for only 10.5 lakh N-95 masks and 10 lakh 3/2 ply masks so far, it is learnt. To make matters worse, its supplier who bagged the order for 10 lakh 3/2 ply masks at Rs 6 apiece stopped supplies after the first 2 lakh and is now seeking a revised price of Rs 16 per piece to resume supplies.

Since the requirement of PPE kits is likely to go up if COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the inability of HLL to ensure an adequate supply of protection gears will not only put doctors and other healthcare professionals at risk but also make the government pay more for quick purchases.

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There are about 100 local manufacturers of PPE kits, which includes face masks, gloves, coveralls, fluid protection gowns, hood caps, eye protection wear, etc, but very few have the inventory to scale up at short notice. Unless there is better clarity on the likely demand and the standard specifications, the industry will not be able to procure raw materials (including some imported stuff) and be prepared for quick response, the PPE manufacturers say.

According to them, the government needs to do two things to ensure supply of quality products at a reasonable price. One, uniform quality specifications across state government and public sector procurement tenders for the same products to build on the scale. Two, a realistic demand projection or early signalling of the number of personal protection equipment (PPE) kits that may be needed at short notice.

While there is some indication of the quantity required by the central government, the actual demand, in case of a surge in COVID-19, is anybody's guess. What is preventing them from producing more is the fact that tenders for the same product from different government agencies seek for different specifications. If some are too high a specification for them to adhere, most others have no specifications at all, thereby allowing fly by night operators to make a killing at the cost of health workers' safety.

"The tenders by various state governments and public enterprises are seeking different specifications. Some need PPE kits meant for viruses like EBOLA while others seek high specifications (like AAMI Level IV) meant for surgical procedures. Most tenders have no specifications at all," says Sanjiiv Kumar, Chairman, Preventive Wear Manufacturers Association of India (PWMAI). The industry has been demanding more clarity on the PPE requirement since early February, with a little result.

Also read: Coronavirus pushes India Inc into financial chaos

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