Disposable rubber gloves are indispensable in the global fight against COVID-19, but a month’s lockdown in Malaysia, where three of every five gloves are made, has upended the supply chain and threatens to hamstring hospitals worldwide.
Top Glove Corp Bhd, the world’s biggest maker of medical gloves by volume, has the capacity to make 200 million gloves a day, but a supplier shutdown has left it with only two weeks’ worth of boxes to ship them in, its founder said.
“We can’t get our gloves to hospitals without cartons,” executive chairman Lim Wee Chai (林偉財) said in an interview. “Hospitals need our gloves. We can’t just supply 50 percent of their requirement.”
The virus, which emerged in China at the end of last year, has left Malaysia with the highest number of infections in Southeast Asia at nearly 1,800 cases, with 19 deaths. To halt transmission, the government has ordered people to stay home from Wednesday last week to April 14.
Glove makers and others eligible for exemption can operate half-staffed provided they meet strict safety conditions.
Still, the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association said it was lobbying “almost every hour” to return the industry to full strength to minimize risk to the global fight.
“We’re shut down,” said Evonna Lim, managing director at packaging supplier Etheos Imprint Technology Sdn Bhd. “We fall under an exempted category, but still need approval.”
Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases specialist at the New York University School of Medicine, said she was using up to six times as many gloves as normal each day due to the number of patients with COVID-19.
“If we get to the point where there is a shortage of gloves, that’s going to be a huge problem because then we cannot draw blood safely, we cannot do many medical procedures safely,” she said.
With glove supplies dwindling, the US Food and Drug Administration on its Web site this month said some gloves could be used beyond their designated shelf life.
The US on Tuesday lifted a ban on imports from Malaysian glove maker WRP Asia Pacific Sdn Bhd, which it had previously accused of using forced labor.
The UK Department of Health and Social Care has urged Malaysian authorities to prioritize the production and shipment of gloves that are of “utmost criticality for fighting COVID-19,” it said in a letter from Thursday last week to glove maker Supermax Corp.
The glove manufacturing association is considering rationing due to the “extremely high demand,” president Denis Low (劉昭甫) said.
“You can produce as many gloves as you can, but then there’s nothing to pack them into,” he said.
Under normal circumstances, Top Glove can meet less than 40 percent of its own packaging needs. For the remainder, it said just 23 percent of suppliers have gained approval to operate at half strength.
“We are lobbying almost every hour, we are putting in a lot of letters to the ministry,” Low said. “We are lobbying hard for the chemical suppliers and we want to ensure that the printers are also being given approval and any other supporting services, even transportation.”
The Malaysian Ministry of International Trade and Industry on Tuesday said it had received masses of applications to operate through the lockdown, and that it was seeking cooperation from industries to give way to those producing essential goods.
Developed economies are home to only one-fifth of the world’s population yet account for nearly 70 percent of medical glove demand due to stringent medical standards. At 150, US glove consumption per capita is 20 times that of China, the latest association data showed.
The group expects demand to jump 16 percent to 345 billion gloves this year, with Malaysia’s market share rising 2 percentage points to 65 percent. Thailand usually follows at about 18 percent and China at 9 percent.
Top Glove said orders have doubled since last month and it sees sales rising by one-fifth in the next six months.
Its stock, with a market value of about US$3.5 billion, has risen by one-third this year versus a fall of 16 percent in the wider market.
With more than 80 percent of its 44 factories worldwide automated, Top Glove is less impacted by the lockdown than its domestic suppliers with higher labor requirements.
Packaging woes aside, ramping up production could turn an undersupply into an oversupply when the coronavirus outbreak finally subsides.
“This outbreak will create awareness and make humankind healthier,” Lim said. “People will pay more attention, they will invest more, they will buy more so demand will be more.”
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