A shipment of 50,000 Malta-bound medical suits has been ransacked in a Turkish shipping warehouse, with the stolen equipment likely to have been sold on a new global black market for COVID-19 hospital supplies. 

“It’s like trying to grab a bar of soap. We order supplies, they are in our grasp, and then they just keep slipping out of our hands before we get them here,” said an official, highlighting the difficulty of buying equipment for Malta’s frontline medical staff.

As countries across the world scramble for face masks, gloves and medical suits to battle the coronavirus outbreak, manufacturers are making huge profits and customers around the world are fighting to be first in line.

Malta has now come up with a plan to avoid the cut-throat bidding war, by negotiating directly with the Chinese government. But it is unclear how long this will hold together and if the equipment will ever make its way to the island.

It’s like trying to grab a bar of soap. We order supplies, they are in our grasp, and then they just keep slipping out of our hands before we get them here

It’s a jungle out there

Meanwhile, at Mater Dei Hospital, a small procurement team is working around the clock to secure the equipment needed by health workers.

But, despite their efforts to lock suppliers into contracts, they say shipments are being cancelled when producers receive higher offers from countries willing to pay well beyond market price.  

“We are placing orders but they just don’t arrive. It is so frustrating to work in this free-for-all, especially when we know medical workers can’t work without this equipment,” a source in the hospital administration said. 

Maltese shipments never make it

The source told Times of Malta that, locally, N95 masks, also known as FFP2 respirators, used to be procured at around €1 each but the price had since shot up to more than €8. 

These masks are being worn by healthcare professionals across the world, including Malta, to protect against the virus. 

A large order of masks put in to a German medical supplier was meant to make its way to Malta a few weeks ago. However, although the manufacturer confirmed the consignment had been approved, it was later cancelled and sold to another undisclosed bidder.

“This is what we are facing now,” a frustrated government procurement official said, adding that the German consignment was being purchased by a Maltese business that was then going to supply the State hospital.

We are placing orders but they just don’t arrive

Hospital insiders said that many producers of masks and other supplies were now demanding to be paid in full before products left their factories and they were supplying whoever could pay quickest.

In Ukraine, there have been reports of medical supplies being stolen at gunpoint on airport runways.

Mater Dei sources said a recent shipment of medical masks bound for Malta from Ukraine had been found opened when couriers picked it up, but nothing major appeared to have gone missing. 

And French and German officials last week accused the US of using “wild west” methods to outbid them.

Over the weekend, authorities in Berlin withdrew a claim that the US had illegally seized a shipment of 200,000 surgical masks ordered for the German capital’s police. 

It turns out that while the shipment was indeed originally heading towards Berlin, the German authorities were simply outbid when the masks arrived at Bangkok Airport in Thailand. Meanwhile, Maltese health authorities are facing another problem: lockdown logistics. 

“With countries going into lockdown across the EU, it is becoming practically impossible to ship supplies. Let’s say you buy merchandise from the UK. It will reach France but then get stuck in Italy and never get here,” the sources said. 

As logistics in the European market become increasingly fraught, Malta is being forced to look outside of the EU to get hold of essential supplies to run the fight against the virus.  

Trading with Shanghai

The hospital sources said that in recent weeks a decision had been taken to negotiate directly with the Chinese government to secure a supply.

Using the Chinese embassy in Valletta, contact had been made with suppliers in Beijing for a mega shipment. 

“We have a huge shipment arriving from China, and this should see us through for a while now,” the sources said.

The Chinese suppliers are being vouched for by the Chinese State, the sources added, as concerns are being raised about the quality of Chinese equipment during the pandemic.  

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us