Panic has arrived in Argentina, taking hold of the populace before the coronavirus itself has even had a chance.
In news splashed across TV screens and websites on Monday, Ezeiza International Airport activated its coronavirus protocol when a passenger on a flight coming from New York was suspected of having the virus. After a few hours of televised debate and online speculation, health officials eventually confirmed that tests had come back negative.
Argentina's main international terminal is not the only place you can see porteños gearing up to fight the impending virus. Even TV star Moria Casán went on air last week sporting the latest in pandemic fashion: the generic, white face mask.
As cases of COVID-19 increase throughout the globe, the increasing demand for surgical masks has left suppliers scrambling.
The New York Times reported on February 6 that in just one week the French medical supply company, Kolmi Holpen, had received orders of half a billion units of medical face masks, a dramatic increase given that the factory usually makes about 170 million masks per year.
The frenzy has already reached Buenos Aires, even though there has yet to be a confirmed case of the virus anywhere in Argentina. Nonetheless, the hunt for barbijos is on.
Adolfo Wendling, 49, a pharmacist at Nueva Delta Pharmacy in Palermo, told the Buenos Aires Times that the store saw a sharp increase in face mask sales on Wednesday, the day the first Latin America case of coronavirus was confirmed in São Paulo, Brazil.
“We ran out of 3M brand masks type N95 by mid-day, but luckily we had a stock of generic masks,” he explained, referring to a local manufacturer's product.
“They’re out of them everywhere,” he continued, noting that the pharmacy did not yet have a plan to meet the increasing demand, should it continue.
The uptick in masks sales is occurring even in spite of reports that the masks are unnecessary for the general public.
"There's little harm in it," Eric Toner, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Business Insider last week. "But it's not likely to be very effective in preventing it."
“When people have doubts, it’s best to take care,” Wendling suggested, while agreeing that the masks may not be effective.
He also noted — with a slight scoff — that he himself does not anticipate a scenario where he would wear a mask to prevent contracting the virus.
Local medical associations are noting this surge in demand. The City's Association of Biochemists and Pharmacists told Télam that "between 60 and 70 percent" of pharmacies in Greater Buenos Aires "have been out of face masks for a month."
A spokesperson for the group said that usual demand had been compounded by people seeking resale opportunities. "A lot of people bought from wholesale to send them abroad," he told the state news agency.
Mask demand surges
Mariel Daguer, a 50-year-old pharmacist at Kinder Farmacy in Palermo, agrees that there's been a spike in demand.
She said that due to her pharmacy’s location — it sits in front of Hospital de Niños Dr. Ricard Gutiérrez — sales of medical face masks are always high. But that in recent days, the store has been selling a greater number of masks to foreigners, who often cite travel as their reason for purchase.
Some local producers look set to benefit from the new business. Argentina's arm of the US medical supply company 3M makes masks, as does local Lanús-based family-run medical clothing supply firm Pademed.
“By mid-January, there was a surge in demand for face masks from our regular clients. We had an unexpected surge and then … the day after, news of [COVID-19] broke,” Olga Torres, sales and marketing manager at Pademed, told BioWorld recently.
“We’ve seen a surge of between 60 percent and 75 percent of usual demand," she added. "I’ve [received] emails and WhatsApp messages asking for [anywhere] from 100,000 units to 10 million units of face masks, which is a lot, considering production levels in Argentina.”
The Times reached out to Pademed for comment, but company officials said they were too busy to comment.
Demand for the masks has inevitably sparked dramatic price increases, both at home and abroad.
At Nueva Delta pharmacy, “the most generic masks are now selling for 25 pesos [a unit], when before this situation they were [being] sold for six pesos,” Wendling told the Times.
On Mercado Libre Argentina, the cheapest seller is now asking 999 pesos for the coveted 3M n95 masks, as people try to take advantage of the lack of availability in Buenos Aires' stores.
This price hike is also being witnessed internationally. Wired reported last week that the best-selling options in Amazon’s “Medical Face Masks” category has seen a price surge of four times the cost from a few weeks ago.
Coronavirus is now present in every continent except Antarctica. More than 89,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide, causing over 3,000 deaths.