Thailand eyes limits on surgical mask exports as coronavirus cases rise

Workers at the Thai Hospital Product Company factory in Bangkok on Jan 30, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand's Cabinet agreed measures on Tuesday (Feb 4) that could lead to a reduction in the export of surgical masks to prevent shortages at home as health authorities try to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Health officials confirmed on Tuesday six new cases on the virus in Thailand, including four Thai nationals and two Chinese, bringing the total to 25, including three instances of human-to-human transmission.

"There are more (surgical mask) orders from overseas and tourists are buying a lot, causing shortages in some stores," deputy government spokesman Ratchada Thanadirek told Reuters.

On average, Thailand produces around 600 million masks each year and uses about 200 million, with the rest exported.

Tuesday's Cabinet decision means surgical masks and certain other products will be classified as "controlled goods", allowing the government to manage their distribution and export, she said.

Initially, exports of more than 500 items would require official permission, Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit told reporters, adding that consumers could call a hotline to report price gouging.

Other products placed in the "controlled goods" category include polypropylene (spunbond), a polymer used in the production of surgical masks and hand-sanitising gel.

Demand for surgical masks had been increasing in Thailand even before the coronavirus outbreak due to deteriorating air quality in cities.

The government is expected to announce official guidelines on Wednesday, including on how many masks an individual is allowed to purchase, Mr Jurin said.

Transmission of coronavirus is likely through contact with an infected person via particles in the air from coughing or sneezing, or touching an infected person or object and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.

The death toll from coronavirus in mainland China has now reached 427. Hong Kong reported on Tuesday its first death from coronavirus, only the second outside mainland China.

The total number of infections in mainland China rose by 3,235 to 20,438.

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