Disposable rubber gloves are indispensable in the global fight against the new coronavirus (COVID-19).
However, a month’s lockdown in Malaysia where three of every five gloves are made has upended the supply chain and threatens to hamstring hospitals worldwide.
The world’s biggest maker of medical gloves by volume, Top Glove Corp Bhd, has the capacity to make 200 million gloves a day, but a supplier shutdown has left it with only two weeks’ worth of boxes to ship them in.
“We can’t get our gloves to hospitals without cartons.
“Hospitals need our gloves. We can’t just supply 50% of their requirement,” says Executive Chairman Lim Wee Chai.
The virus, which emerged in China at the end of last year, has left Malaysia with the highest number of infections in Southeast Asia at nearly 1,800 cases, with 17 deaths.
To halt transmission, the government has ordered people to stay home from March 18 to April 14.
Glove makers and others eligible for exemption can operate half-staffed provided they meet strict safety conditions.
Still, the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association (MARGMA) said it was lobbying “almost every hour” to return the industry to full strength to minimize risk to the global fight.
“We aren’t shutting down. We fall under an exempted category but still need approval,” said Evonna Lim, managing director at packaging supplier Etheos Imprint Technology.
Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases specialist at the New York University School of Medicine, said she was using up to six times as many gloves as normal each day due to the number of patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
“If we get to the point where there is a shortage of gloves, that’s going to be a huge problem because then we cannot draw blood safely, we cannot do many medical procedures safely.”
With glove supplies dwindling, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on its website this month said some gloves could be used beyond their designated shelf life.
On Tuesday, the United States lifted a ban on imports from Malaysian glove maker WRP Asia Pacific who it had previously accused of using forced labor.
Britain’s Department of Health & Social Care has urged Malaysian authorities to prioritize the production and shipment of gloves that are of “utmost criticality for fighting COVID-19,” showed in a letter dated March 20 to glove maker Supermax Corp.