US shoppers shaking money managed to control a quantity of masks being shipped from China to one of the most coronavirus-hit areas, such as France, French officials say.
The masks were on a plane to Shanghai airport ready to depart when American shoppers showed up and offered three times what their French counterparts would pay.
Jean Rottner, physician and president of the GrandEst regional council, said part of the order of several million masks heading to the region, where intensive care units were flooded with Covid-19 patients, had been lost.
"In this case, they come in, take out the money ... so we really have to fight," he told RTL radio.
Rottner would not identify the buyers for whom they were working or for which US state the cargo was shipped, but another French official also involved in buying masks from China said the group was acting for the US government.
"The cherry on the cake is a foreign country that has paid three times the price of cargo on the runway," Réud Muselier, head of the south-eastern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, told French channel BFMTV. The Guardian has contacted the U.S. State Department for comment on the event.
A senior administration official told AFP that "the United States government has not bought any masks intended for dispatch from China to France. Reports to the contrary are completely false."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the reports as "disturbing and urged officials to consider similar claims that the masks were leaving his country."
"We need to make sure that the equipment destined for Canada is taken up and stayed in Canada, and I have asked ministers to follow up on these special reports," he said Thursday.
At a news conference in Brazil on Wednesday, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said Brazil's recent efforts to buy protective equipment such as gloves and masks from China had been rejected.
"Today, the United States shipped 23 of its largest cargo planes to China to retrieve the material they had purchased. Many of our purchases, which we had hoped to confirm to supply [our health system], were rejected, ”he said. "The whole world wants [these things] as well. It's a problem of excess demand."
Mandetta urged ordinary Brazilians to make craft masks from the piece so that health professionals could have the remaining professional equipment.
As the pandemic worsens, governments in panic have been accused of using controversial methods to obtain supplies in the battle against coronavirus. Tactics have ranged from blocking exports of medical supplies to sending spies on clandestine missions to find tests.
Fearing a shortage and a failure of their health care system, a number of countries, including France, Germany and Russia, have taken measures such as collecting masks and tools. This has meant limiting exports of medical protective equipment.
Turkey allegedly went further, not only banning the export of defense vehicles, but also by selling the masks that were made to them already paid.
Reports by the Belgian newspaper Le Soir and the Italian daily Corriere della Sera said that masks made by Turks destined for those countries had never arrived. In Italy, it took more than two weeks after a phone call from Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the masks to be released. In Belgium, supplies had not yet been delivered, despite a formal police complaint from the country's health ministry.
Turkey has also threatened to command local mask manufacturers to make sure they are provided for the state only. The local Hurriyet Newspaper quoted Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu as saying authorities would confiscate factories if companies refused to sell on an exclusive basis to the health ministry.
China, the world's largest maker of masks, was the first country to be hit by the Covid-19 blast and was also accused of hiding its supplies. However, it has been one of the few places to go the other way, selling or donating millions of masks to Europe. Such a shipment to Italy passed through the Czech Republic, where it was seized by the authorities in disputed circumstances.
Czech authorities have denied allegations of state-sponsored theft at Giornale Radio Rai, which is the Italian news broadcaster, RAI. They said the masks had gone to a warehouse north of Prague, where they were seized in an anti-trafficking operation. The foreign minister, Tomáš Petříček, said later that his government had sent 110,000 masks to Rome in compensation.
A similar incident occurred in Kenya, where a shipment of up to 6 million contracted masks to Germany mysteriously disappeared while crossing the East African country, although there was no suggestion that the government was responsible.
Coronavirus medicines and tests have also been coveted across the globe. After the US president suggested, without fully supported scientific evidence, that a common anti-malarial drug could treat Covid-19, India immediately made moves to halt hydroxyl chlorine exports.
Israel's Mossad intelligence agency has launched several international clandestine operations to fly hundreds of thousands of coronavirus testing kits.
Local media reports, citing unknown medical and intelligence officials, suggested the kits had been purchased by an enemy state that would not want such a deal made public. Many countries do not recognize Israel because of its relations with Palestine
Some governments have even moved in recent weeks to stock up on local food supplies. Kazakhstan, a leading flour producer, banned exports, and Vietnam, the third largest exporter in the world, did the same. Serbia moved first to block medicines and then sunflower exports.
Global food shortages are not anticipated and most countries have kept their markets open, but governments' anxious efforts to better control resources have left much to be desired.
Abraham L Newman, a professor at Georgetown University's government department, and Henry Farrell, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said there was a risk that the world would "seize in mistrust and selfishness."
"The high level of mutual suspicion it is currently creating between states will make it difficult to coordinate an international response," they wrote in the Havard Business Review. "It is difficult for governments to be generous when their citizens are scared and supplies are scarce. However, this can lead to a spiral of fear and revenge."
German media reported last month that the Trump administration had offered a German medical company large sums of money for exclusive access to a vaccine. Despite the fact that the company, CureVac, denied the reports, the incident clearly shocked other countries.
China's Global Times published an editorial describing the search for a vaccine as "a battle that China cannot afford to lose".
Citing reports on CureVac, he said: "Given the movements of the two leading Western countries, we can see that there is no way for China to be supported by Europe or the US in vaccine development. China should be the only one in this field ".