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In scramble for supplies, rich countries push poor aside

Crates of masks snatched from cargo planes on airport tarmacs. Countries paying triple the market price to outbid others. Accusations of “modern piracy” against governments trying to secure medical supplies for their own people.

As the United States and European Union countries compete to acquire scarce medical equipment to combat the coronavirus, another troubling divide is also emerging, with poorer countries losing out to wealthier ones in the global scrum for masks and testing materials.

Scientists in Africa and Latin America have been told by manufacturers that orders for testing kits cannot be filled for months because the supply chain is in upheaval and almost everything they make is going to America or Europe. All countries report steep price increases, from testing kits to masks.

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The huge global demand for masks, alongside new distortions in the private market, has forced some developing countries to turn to UNICEF for help. Etleva Kadilli, who oversees supplies at the agency, said it was trying to buy 240 million masks to help 100 countries but so far had managed to source only around 28 million.

“There is a war going on behind the scenes, and we’re most worried about poorer countries losing out,” said Dr. Catharina Boehme, the chief executive of the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, which collaborates with the World Health Organization in helping poorer countries gain access to medical tests.

In Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, many countries are already at a disadvantage, with health systems that are underfunded, fragile, and often lacking in necessary equipment. A recent study found some countries have only one equipped intensive care bed per 1 million residents.

So far, the developing world has reported far fewer cases and deaths from the coronavirus, but many specialists fear that the pandemic could be especially devastating for the poorest countries.

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Testing is the first defense against the virus and an important tool to stop so many patients from ending up hospitalized. Most manufacturers want to help, but the niche industry that produces the testing equipment and chemical reagents necessary to process lab tests is dealing with huge demand.

“There’s never really been a shortage of chemical reagents before now,” said Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, which represents producers and distributors of the lab tests used to detect the coronavirus. “If it was just one country with an epidemic it would be fine, but all the major countries in the world are wanting the same thing at the same time.”

For poorer countries, Boehme said, the competition for resources is potentially a “global catastrophe,” as a once-coherent supply chain has rapidly devolved into an arm-twisting exercise. Leaders of “every country” are personally calling manufacturing chief executives to demand first-in-line access to vital supplies. Some governments have even offered to send private jets.

In Brazil, Amilcar Tanuri cannot offer private jets. Tanuri runs public laboratories at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, half of which are “stuck doing nothing” instead of testing health workers, he said, because the chemical reagents he needs are being routed to wealthier countries.

The situation is similar for some African countries.

African officials objected Thursday to the global jostling to obtain medical equipment, warning that if COVID-19 is left to spread on the continent of 1.3 billion people the world will remain at risk.

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While 48 of Africa’s 54 countries now have testing capability, that often is limited to countries’ capitals or other major cities, WHO officials said. There is an “urgent need” to expand testing, the WHO Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti, said, noting that clusters of community transmission have emerged in at least 16 countries.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.