The Morning Jolt

World

Authoritarian Regimes Are Not Your Friend

A security officer wearing protective gear gestures at the photographer at the arrival hall of Beijing Capital Airport in Beijing, China, March 4, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

We start the week with one big deep dive into just how many defective pieces of medical equipment have been shipped to desperate countries by Chinese manufacturers.

How China Scammed the World with More Than Ten Million Defective Tests, Masks, and Gear

You have probably heard about reports of various countries ordering medical equipment from China, only to find upon delivery that the equipment is defective, poorly made, and unusable. What you probably don’t know is just how massive the scale of these botched orders is.

Even by the Chinese government’s own numbers, they’re producing jaw-dropping quantities of medical equipment that aren’t up to the right standards: “As of last Friday, China’s market regulators had inspected nearly 16 million businesses and seized more than 89 million masks and 418,000 pieces of protective gear, said Ms Gan Lin, deputy director of the State Administration of Market Regulation, at a press briefing.”

And that’s just the stuff they’re catching before it goes out the door.

Almost every country that is dealing with the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak has ordered masks, tests, or personal protective equipment from China, only to open the boxes and find that the deliveries are unusable. In some cases, the equipment was distributed and used before the poor quality was discovered — offering false protection to medical personnel and exacerbating the spread of the virus instead of mitigating it.

Let’s begin closest to home, in Missouri: “Approximately 48,000 KN95 masks that were distributed to Missouri’s first responders are being recalled. The Missouri State Emergency Management Agency said it is recalling approximately 48,000 KN95 masks that ‘do not meet standards.’ SEMA said the recalled masks may bear the names ‘Huabai,’ ‘SANQUI,’ or be unmarked, with Chinese characters on the cellophane packaging, or other names.”

Spin a globe, point your finger, and when the globe stops, there’s a good chance it will reach a country that received defective equipment when it needed functioning gear and tests the most.

India tested nearly a half a million people before they realized that they can’t be certain that the tests they had obtained from China aren’t giving accurate results:

According to the sources, teams constituted by ICMR are analysing the rapid antibody test kits, procured from two Chinese firms, to check their efficacy after some states reported that they are faulty and giving inaccurate results.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on Tuesday had advised states to stop using the rapid antibody test kits for the next two days after it received complaints from states that they are not fully effective.

“We have received complaint from one state and so far discussed the issue with three states. High variations ranging from 6 to 71 percent have been reported between the results of the rapid tests and RT-PCR tests. We will advise states not to use these testing kits for the next two days,” Dr Raman R Gangakhedkar, head of epidemiology and communicable diseases at the ICMR.

Spain has all kinds of horror stories, one of which is finding that a huge batch of tests was faulty — a batch that was sent to replace a previous shipment of faulty tests:

The Spanish government is trying to get back the money it paid for 640,000 antigen coronavirus tests that it purchased via a Spanish distributor from a Chinese company called Bioeasy. The move comes after the health authorities found that the kits – which were meant to replace another lot that was found to be faulty – don’t work either. As happened the first time around, these tests do not have the sensitivity required to detect the virus, meaning that there is a high chance that they won’t detect the coronavirus in a person who has been infected.

Spain had distributed 180,000 tests to be used on health-care workers and the elderly living in nursing homes . . . before finding out the error rate was so high, the test results were meaningless.

The Spanish Health Ministry had to recall more than 350,000 defective masks.

After the defective masks were discovered, more than 100 health workers were forced to go into isolation as the pandemic raged through the country.

The General Hospital of Alicante, Spain found cockroaches in a shipment of protective gowns.

Belgium: “The University Hospital of Leuven (UZ Leuven) refused a shipment of 3,000 masks from China because the equipment was not reliable enough, Herman Devrieze, head of the prevention department at UZ Leuven, told local TV station ROBtv on Sunday evening.”

In the Netherlands:

The Dutch government has ordered a recall of around 600,000 masks out of a shipment of 1.3 million from China after they failed to meet quality standards. The defective masks had already been distributed to several hospitals currently battling the COVID-19 outbreak, news agency AFP and Dutch media reported. The Dutch Health Ministry has kept the rest of the shipment on hold.

An inspection revealed that the FFP2 masks did not protect the face properly or had defective filter membranes. The fine filters stop the virus from entering the mouth or nose. The masks failed more than one inspection.

“A second test also revealed that the masks did not meet the quality norms. Now it has been decided not to use any of this shipment,” said the Health Ministry said in a statement to news agency AFP.

In Austria, more masks that aren’t so protective: “A large delivery of FFP2 and FFP3 protective masks destined for South Tyrol, which were procured from China with the help of a sporting goods manufacturer and which were first transported to Vienna-Schwechat with an AUA machine, cannot be used . . . The Red Cross was taken aback during a visual inspection of the masks because gaps were visible in the area of ​​the cheeks.” The order was for 500,000 masks.

United Kingdom: “Found to be insufficiently accurate by a laboratory at Oxford University, half a million of the tests are now gathering dust in storage. Another 1.5 million bought at a similar price from other sources have also gone unused. The fiasco has left embarrassed British officials scrambling to get back at least some of the money.”

The Czech Republic: Doctors found an error rate of up to 80 percent in the tests they received from China. “Health-care authorities and some government members said the 300,000 quick tests purchased by the state only worked if patients had been infected for at least five days.”

Turkey: “Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca confirmed later on Friday that Turkey had tried some rapid antigen tests arrived from China, but authorities ‘weren’t happy about them . . . We didn’t release them for public use.’ Koca also said that Turkey had received a different and viable testing kits that are based on antibodies from China. ‘We have 350,000 of them now,’ he said.  A member of the Turkish health ministry special science board on coronavirus said that the batch of testing kits were only 30 to 35 percent accurate.”

Slovakia: “The 1.2 million Chinese antibody tests that the Slovak government bought from local middlemen for 15 million euros ($16 million) are inaccurate and unable to detect COVID-19 in its early stages, according to Prime Minister Igor Matovic, who only took office last month. ‘We have a ton and no use for them,’ he said. They should ‘just be thrown straight into the Danube.’”

Canada: “The Canadian government says about one million of the face masks it has purchased from China have failed to meet proper standards for health care professionals and will not be distributed to provinces or cities . . . [Separately], the City of Toronto announced in early April it was recalling more than 60,000 faulty surgical masks made in China and provided to staff at long-term care facilities, and is investigating whether caregivers were exposed to COVID-19 while wearing the equipment. The masks were distributed and then recalled after reports of ripping and tearing.”

Australia: “The ABC has learnt that in recent weeks, Australian Border Force (ABF) officers have intercepted several deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE) that have been found to be counterfeit or otherwise faulty. One law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, estimated the ABF had already seized 800,000 masks with a combined value of more than $1.2 million on the Australian market.”

The government of Georgia — the nation, not the state between South Carolina and Florida — canceled a contract for up to 200,000 rapid tests after concluding they weren’t reliable.

Finland found two million masks ordered from China were unusable, and the head of the country’s emergency supply agency resigned. That country ordered its masks from “a payday lender and reality TV star” in China.

Nepal determined that the 75,000 rapid diagnostic tests they had ordered from China were so faulty they were unusable.

Finally, one Pakistani news channel says that hospitals in that country opened up boxes of masks from China, only to find they had been made out of . . . underwear.

Add up all of these accounts and you get 10,276,000 faulty tests, masks, and pieces of personal protective equipment. And these are just the ones we know about. The stuff that was visibly unusable right out of the box, while frustrating, is the least damaging. It’s the tests that showed negative when they were positive and the non-protective masks given out to health-care workers that are catastrophic.

On March 30, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunyin contended that the coverage of the faulty equipment was driven by political agendas. “Our sincerity and assistance is real. If problems occur in this process, the Chinese side will talk to relevant departments. Problems should be properly solved based on facts, not political interpretations.”

On January 23, China stopped all public transportation in Wuhan and all outbound flights. On February 3, China’s civil aviation authority urged domestic carriers to continue flying international routes. The country knew they had an outbreak of a contagious disease but made sure its citizens were still traveling the world.

Then, as the outbreak accelerated, China was there to sell the suffering countries medical equipment — “demanding yes-or-no decisions from buyers with full payment upfront in as little as 24 hours.

In the Wall Street Journal, Spanish writer Jorge González-Gallarza Hernández thinks it is time for countries to ban imports of medical equipment from China, arguing that the complete lack of quality control makes their exports a menace to public health: “Because no other country matches China in the sale of defective equipment — and at a time when Beijing boasts about recovering from Covid-19 — countries facing steep contagion curves should err on the side of caution and look for the best equipment elsewhere. For all Beijing’s lofty talk of wanting to help the world, it has no export-restriction system to prevent the foreign sale of shoddy equipment.”

Of course, it’s not just China. Back in March, Russian state media announced that the government was sending 600 ventilators, 100 military virologists and epidemiologists, eight medical teams, disinfection equipment, a field laboratory for sterilization and chemical prevention, and other similar tools to Italy to fight the coronavirus pandemic in that hard-hit country. “Italian officials speaking anonymously to La Stampa said as much as 80 percent of the delivered material was useless, and that the operation appears to be a public-relations stunt with little practical benefit to the country’s healthcare system.”

How many times do Western countries need to learn and re-learn the same hard lesson? Authoritarian regimes are not your friend. They do not have your best interests at heart, they are not trustworthy, and they do not particularly care if you live or die.

And under no circumstances should a free society be dependent upon an authoritarian regime for the medical equipment it needs to survive a crisis.

ADDENDUM: Good news! In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer is finally willing to revise her sweeping restrictions: “Landscapers, lawn-service companies, plant nurseries and bike repair shops can resume operating, subject to social-distancing rules. Stores selling nonessential supplies can reopen for curbside pickup and delivery. Big-box retailers no longer have to close off garden centers and areas dedicated to selling paint, flooring and carpet.”

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