UPDATE: The story has been updated to include a reply from FairPrice.
SINGAPORE — Surgical face masks and N95 masks are flying off pharmacy shelves, following the increasing spread of the Wuhan coronavirus.
On Thursday (23 January), Yahoo News Singapore visited five Unity, Guardian and Watsons stores and found that all of them had run out of masks.
The flurry to stock up comes even though no confirmed cases of the virus have been reported in Singapore. Three more suspected cases were identified yesterday, while seven previously reported cases had tested negative.
At Serangoon’s Nex, a Watsons staff member said that the store’s masks had ran out since yesterday. She added that N95 masks may be restocked in the afternoon. Only two packs of children’s masks could be seen.
Sales assistant Kamisah Haribin, 53, said that she had customers approaching her for masks every two to three minutes.
“Yesterday, a customer told me that she went to Yishun and managed to get within the same day, but it ran out by the end of the day,” she recalled. “The suppliers only produce a bit each day and they get snapped up.”
Within half an hour, more than five customers, mostly middle-aged women, had been turned away after asking about masks.
One of them, homemaker Jenny Gng, visited the outlet with her grandson, who sported a surgical mask.
Said Gng, 68, in Mandarin, “It is better to buy for safety because when we take the bus and the train, we keep seeing people coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths.”
She added that she would be returning in the afternoon to find out if the masks had been replenished, as her daughter was anxious about the issue.
Another customer, Steven Lee, said that he had tried Watsons in the hopes of buying masks for his family’s travel to Beijing over Chinese New Year.
Asked about the situation in China, the 44-year-old, who works in finance, said, “It should be fine.”
At Unity Pharmacy, which is under NTUC FairPrice, only a single box of two-ply surgical masks were left, with stocks selling out as early as Tuesday, according to staff. Staff did not know when the masks would be restocked.
Guardian assistant manager at 100AM Patrick Eng said that demand had spiked this week.
“We will see people buying four or five boxes at a time, especially foreigners. We hope to restock today, we usually get a few hundred at a time. We have sufficient stock in the warehouse.”
“This week, we have sold more than 1,000 pieces in a few days. Including last week, we have sold more than 2,000 pieces,” said Eng.
Other items in-demand
Hand sanitisers and anti-bacterial wet wipes have not been spared, with Dettol brand hand sanitisers sold out within half an hour of Watsons’ opening at Nex on Thursday. Kamisah said that sales for these products have tripled in the past week, with two customers buying all the the bottles in bulk this morning.
Asked about the sale of its masks, a Guardian spokesman confirmed that there had been an increase in sales of masks, with sales quadrupling in the last two weeks.
Sales of thermometers and hand sanitisers have also tripled in the same period, according to the spokesman.
A Watsons spokesman said its outlets “have seen an increase in sales of masks (surgical and N95), thermometers, Vitamin C (supplements) and sanitisers recently on both physical stores and e-stores”.
“We are proactively taking steps to ensure constant replenishment to meet the demand from consumers.”
A check of both the Guardian and Watsons online stores revealed that masks were sold out, with only children’s masks left at Watsons.
Responding to queries, a FairPrice spokesperson said that demand for thermometers and hand sanitisers have increased, whereas mask sales have surged by more than five times in the past few days.
“Stocks for these items at Unity and FairPrice outlets are subject to availability. We are working with suppliers to ramp up supply to meet the surge in demand,” said the spokesperson, who urged customers to “only buy what they need” so that others may purchase supplies too.
Which mask is better?
Experts have said that surgical masks are more appropriate in the case of the Wuhan virus, compared to the N95 masks.
Comparing the two, surgical masks help reduce exposure to the saliva of others, while N95 masks are designed to filter airborne particles and are commonly used during haze situations.
The coronavirus, which belongs to the same family of viruses as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, has claimed 17 lives in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is its capital. At least 571 people in China have been infected while at least 12 cases have been confirmed beyond mainland China, including the US, Thailand, South Korea and Japan.
Additional reporting by Nicholas Yong