2020.04.21 17:30

Chinese respirators come with missing papers, fake certificates – LRT Investigation

Mindaugas Aušra, LRT.lt2020.04.21 17:30

Amid a worldwide scramble for Chinese respirators and medical supplies, Lithuanian importers and authorities are left dealing with sub-quality goods and forged documents, according to the LRT Investigation Team.

Six planes carrying millions of units of protective gear had arrived in Lithuania from China by April 8. Yet after receiving 22,000 respirators, Vilnius Municipality was forced to send around 2,000 back.

Instead of the FFP3 respirators that can be used in contagious environments, the city received lower-grade FFP1 and FFP2 facemasks. The price it paid, however, was up to six times the shipment’s normal value.

The consumer protection authorities that checked the respirators were handed falsified documents and witnessed other scam attempts, Povilas Poderskis, the head of administration at Vilnius Municipality, told LRT.

“The respirators arrived in different boxes, we had a lot of trouble [sorting them], and the polyclinics had to return them,” he said.

Relaxed rules

Arvydas Naina from the State Consumer Rights Protection Authority (VVTAT) says Lithuanian importers have themselves been asking the agency to check the quality of the products.

“In the documents, I see the [declared] standard for the highest category of protection, but you look at the picture and you see it’s gauze,” he told LRT.

Some shipments had certificates which are not valid in Europe, said Naina.

Responding to high demand, the European Commission has allowed importing equipment that has not been certified. But even with the simplified rules, Chinese manufacturers and Lithuanian importers are trying to by-pass the laws, the LRT Investigation Team has found.

The US has previously detected document forgery. Seeing flimsy masks with alleged EU certificates arriving in Lithuania, scientists that test the respirators suspect that their quality is at odds with the documents.

“They don't fit around the face properly,” said Dainius Martuzevičius from Kaunas Technical University (KTU), which has been testing FFP2 respirators from China.

“The string is very weak, the respirator moves [...] leaving gaps around the nose and chin – so what filtration effectiveness can we talk about?” he told LRT, adding that production materials usually do meet the standards.

Window of lax control

Due to shortages of protective gear, Lithuania’s Health Ministry issued guidelines on March 12 that allow Lithuanian companies to certify single-use medical masks themselves.

Customs officials say most of incoming shipments are loaded off the planes without undergoing any scrutiny.

Most of the supplies arrived via Kaunas Airport and, according to the regional customs representative Vilius Raiginis, were unchecked by customs officers, as they were either bound for the Health Ministry or importers themselves had to certify them.

Starting on April 1, China has itself been applying more stringent control on its exports.

However, companies that spoke to LRT Investigation Team said that, during the short window of deregulation, the market was flooded with poor-quality products.

Lithuanian importers seeking to profit from the situation were as much to blame as Chinese producers, according to one company, which has been importing protective equipment from China for more than a decade

“The same companies which offered [respirators] to the ministries, also offered them directly to us,” said the company’s representative, preferring to stay anonymous. “For example, they declare them to be the highest-quality equipment, but if you check certificates and lab protocols, you see the situation is completely different.”

Still, medical workers who use the equipment rarely complain, says Jurgita Sejonienė from the trade union Lietuvos Medikų Sąjūdis (Movement of Lithuania’s Medics). The organisation has so far received only two complaints about expired respirators delivered to Santara Clinics in Vilnius and Klaipėda University Hospital.

Scramble for supplies

Meanwhile, Lithuanian businesses working in China say the global demand has created a scramble for supplies in which everyone fends for himself.

Manufacturers of facemasks and respirators are demanding payment up front and supplies go to those who can pay the biggest price at the shortest notice.

Lithuanian importers told LRT Investigation Team that people are sometimes standing outside factories in China with suitcases full of cash in an attempt to buy out departing shipments.

Some shipments arrive in Lithuania with holes and respirators missing, they say. One shipment bound for Lithuania is still lost somewhere between Germany and Italy.

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