Germany enlists industrial giants to procure face masks and medical gear

Berlin is enlisting German multinationals and their networks of contacts abroad, especially in China, to secure protective clothing and equipment in the fight against the coronavirus, the health ministry said Friday.

Germany enlists industrial giants to procure face masks and medical gear
Markus Söder (CSU), Minister President of Bavaria, stands with a face mask in a production hall of the automotive supplier Zettl on April 2nd. Photo: DPA

“The health ministry procures directly, but we are also in contact with a whole string of companies… who may be able to help,” a spokeswoman told reporters at a press conference in the German capital.

A spokesman for chemical giant BASF told AFP that its “employees are on a government procurement team” known as the Task Force Personal Protective Equipment (TFPSA).

“In China, BASF experts are currently working with other companies and their local contacts to help procure and transport medical protective clothing and equipment such as face masks that are urgently needed in Germany,” the spokesman said.

Public broadcaster ARD had earlier reported that other German global giants like carmaker Volkswagen and airline group Lufthansa were involved in the effort.

Staff from the health, finance and foreign ministries were looking to counter “dynamic market developments”, ARD reported, quoting from a government document that outlined the scheme.

A global rush to secure vital gear for medical personnel as they treat virus-infected patients has sent prices soaring and led to Wild West-like scenes in producer countries.

French regional leaders told AFP that shipments of masks they had ordered were snapped up by American buyers as they stood ready for departure on the tarmac at Chinese airports.

“The Americans took a shipment from us, we've identified a load they outbid us on,” said Valerie Pecresse, head of the Ile-de-France region that encompasses capital Paris and its surroundings.

So far Berlin has been able to acquire around 20 million face masks, although many hospitals, medical practices and care homes still report shortages.

In light of the corona crisis, companies such as Bavarian automotive supplier Zettle have ceased normal operations and began producing protective masks.

READ ALSO: 'They could reduce the risk': Germany's public health institute changes stance on face masks

Hopes the German military's procurement arm could speed up the process have been disappointed, as most of the gear so far has been procured directly by the health ministry.

A shipment of six million masks ordered by the military went missing at an airport in Kenya in March, the defence ministry confirmed last week.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) responsible for disease control reported Friday 76,696 confirmed coronavirus infections in Germany, an increase of more than 6,000 in 24 hours.

So far over 1,000 Germans have died of the COVID-19 disease.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus deaths in Germany top 1,000 as officials say infection rate is slowing

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.