Supplies of N95 mask running low in Hong Kong as Wuhan virus scare sparks panic buying and marked-up prices

Karen Zhang

Supplies of a mask widely used during the 2003 Sars outbreak in Hong Kong are running low amid the mystery pneumonia scare in the city, with some retailers doubling prices of limited stocks.

At least three online platforms and 15 of the 21 pharmacies contacted by the Post said they had no more N95 respirators, but a doctor assured the public there was no need for panic buying as there was no sign yet of the disease spreading from the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan.

As of Monday, 59 cases were reported in Wuhan, with 21 suspected infections in Hong Kong. Some of the local cases have been found to involve known viruses or the flu, with others still pending test results.

There has been no confirmed case outside the mainland city or evidence to suggest human-to-human transmission, according to health authorities there.

The N95 mask was widely used by Hongkongers in 2003 amid the deadly Sars outbreak. Photo: Nora Tam

A check by the Post on Monday on three local online platforms selling N95 respirators and recommended by manufacturer 3M showed they were out of stock.

“Due to the huge number of mask orders, the delivery time will be a bit delayed,” mall.builderhood.com, a website selling hardware materials, stated on its page.

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Checks on other online retailers such as HKTVmall and Henry Chemical also showed that the respirators, with prices ranging from HK$8 to HK$12 each, were unavailable.

A salesperson from Henry Chemical said they had been receiving a lot of orders from medical institutions since last week. “The masks should arrive at the end of this week. You can get them next week at the soonest.”

Disposable surgical masks on the three sites were also out of stock.

Disposable surgical masks are also being snapped up by buyers amid the virus scare. Photo: Sam Tsang

On Monday afternoon, the Post also conducted phone inquiries with 21 drug stores citywide on stocks for N95 respirators. Fifteen said they had no more supply, with four of the remaining six stores doubling prices to more than HK$24 a piece.

Some retailers told the Post they marked up prices because suppliers had raised costs as customers rushed to hoard the item.

The N95 is a disposable mask that can guard against hazardous substances, and was widely used during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003 which killed 299 people in the city.

One staff member at a pharmacy in Sheung Shui told the Post that a new product batch would arrive on Monday afternoon, but he complained that the supplier had raised the wholesale cost.

“The supplier’s price is crazy. It’s HK$480 for a box, which means HK$24 per pack. I used to sell these at HK$10 to HK$14 each,” he said on the phone.

The supplier’s price is crazy. It’s HK$480 for a box, which means HK$24 per pack. I used to sell these at HK$10 to HK$14 each

Staff member, Sheung Shui pharmacy

Another retailer from a drug store in Causeway Bay was offering the item at HK$28 each. “It’s reasonable to increase the price during this period,” he said. “I have three boxes now. You’d better act fast. If not, it will be more expensive, unless the outbreak is over.”

Several pharmacies claimed they were running out of disposable surgical masks for adults too, but would restock the next day. Some still carrying this type of mask were selling them for more than HK$1 each – above the usual price.

Salesman Vincent Tang at a drug store in Tsim Sha Tsui said many suppliers had stopped bringing in masks or had doubled or tripled prices.

Tang said his shop sold out on 50 boxes of N95 respirators in three hours at the price of HK$450 per box, each containing 20 masks. He said he used to sell them at only HK$180 to HK$220 per box.

He noted that the price of basic disposable surgical masks, which come in 50 per box, had also shot up from HK$30 to HK$80.

“A hundred boxes were sold out from noon to 4pm today,” he said, “People still rushed to buy other types of face masks after these two ran out of stock.”

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But Professor Ivan Hung Fan-ngai, an infectious diseases expert from the University of Hong Kong, called for calm.

“We do not know the cause of the disease or if it can spread between humans yet ... It seems the mainland government is able to contain the disease in a short period of time through quarantine.”

He suggested monitoring the situation for one more week to see if there would be a sudden surge in cases. “If the number of cases increases to several hundreds on the mainland, then we may need to be worried about it spreading to Hong Kong.”

Hung said the N95 would not be needed outside medical institutions if there was no epidemic. “You can’t wear it on the streets or go to work anyway because it’s not easy to breathe with it.”

He said the mask, which reduces the transmission risk of airborne diseases, was mainly used by medical staff in wards, and hospital supply was so far sufficient.

“A surgical mask is enough if people need enhanced protection in the community,” he said. “It can protect users from droplet transmission.”

Additional reporting by Lilian Cheng

This article Supplies of N95 mask running low in Hong Kong as Wuhan virus scare sparks panic buying and marked-up prices first appeared on South China Morning Post

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