By Elvira Pollina
ROME (Reuters) – Italy hopes to become self-sufficient in producing protective masks against the coronavirus outbreak within two months, the national commissioner for the emergency said on Tuesday.
The shortage of masks has been one of the biggest problems dogging the national health system since the contagion surfaced in the wealthy northern region of Lombardy at the end of February.
More people have since died of coronavirus in Italy than in any other country. The toll rose by 743 on Tuesday to 6,820.
“Over the last few days we’ve had very difficult moments. The reason is quite simple: there is no made-in-Italy production of the ammunition we need to fight this war,” commissioner Domenico Arcuri told reporters.
Arcuri was appointed by the government earlier this month to deal with a series of logistical problems and bottlenecks, including mask supplies, caused by the fast spread of the virus and the rush of other countries to secure medical equipment.
“Protective masks are not like pasta. You can’t buy them in shops, you can’t buy them online. They don’t materialise where needed. We are living a very complex and hard trade war,” he said.
Arcuri added that Italy had a monthly requirement of over 90 million masks. That includes FFP2 and FFP3 masks, which filter most particles and which health staff need to wear while dealing with infected patients.
In a bid to tackle the shortage in masks Italy has canvassed national and fashion companies and they will soon be able to produce half of the masks the country needs, Arcuri said.
“In 96 hours a consortium of Italian producers will convert and start the production of masks”.
He added that a recent government decree provided incentives totalling 50 million euros ($54 million) for companies prepared to reconvert their plants to produce masks.
“I hope many hundreds of Italian companies will seek to seize this opportunity,” he said, adding that the ramp-up in domestic production needed to be swift.
Arcuri said Italy had secured a total of 14 million masks from China each week for the next two months, including 8 million FFP2 masks.
“My hope is that, given we have supplies from abroad locked in for the next two months, if we manage to build up enough production of our own between now and then, then that could be the time frame we should be looking at to be self-sufficient.”
(Reporting by Elvira Pollina and Giulia Segreti; Writing by Stephen Jewkes; Editing by Louise Heavens and Mark Heinrich)