News

Surgical mask shortage: Greedy importers to blame

 

  • Local prices too low after MRP imposed
  • Re-export for better prices abroad

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

While Sri Lanka experiences a dire shortage of face masks following the outbreak of Covid-19, it has come to light that several companies which were permitted to import the necessary stocks of face masks at low cost to mitigate the shortage, had exported/re-exported these to other countries at higher rates.

National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dr. Kamal Jayasinghe told The Sunday Morning that these companies had been re-exporting face masks as the local retail price was too low.

“We have given permission to a number of companies to import face masks and even after their stocks arrived, face masks were not adequately available. When we investigated, we found that they were re-exporting at higher rates. Then, we decided to issue a gazette notification prohibiting the re-export/export of surgical masks,” Dr. Jayasinghe noted.

On 16 March, an extraordinary gazette notification was issued, prohibiting the export or re-export of disposable surgical face masks and N95 type face masks without the prior written approval of the NMRA.

Asked about the number of companies that had been engaged in this practice and the action taken by the NMRA, Dr. Jayasinghe said at the time they were re-exporting, it had not been prohibited and therefore those companies had not engaged in an illegal act.

The NMRA refused to divulge the names of the companies and said those were not known to the NMRA, even though each and every company importing medical equipment and drugs is required to be registered with the NMRA.

Sri Lanka recorded the first coronavirus-positive patient on 27 January and soon after the announcement was made public, there was a severe shortage of face masks reported around the country due to panic buying. On 29 January, the Government announced a maximum retail price (MRP) for face masks following complaints that some traders had increased the prices following a rise in demand for
the products.

Accordingly, the Health Ministry said that the MRP for a disposable face mask would be Rs. 15 and for a N95 mask, Rs. 150. However, the next local person infected with the coronavirus was reported on 11 March and even at that time, there was a severe countrywide
shortage reported.