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Masks are seen on a production line at a factory in Shanghai, China, in a Jan. 31, 2020, file photo.

ALY SONG/Reuters

For days now, Li Fengwei has been on the receiving end of a “hysterical” number of phone calls, some 200 a day, from all over the world.

The callers want what his company makes: ventilators, the mechanical devices that can assist breathing and have been among the keys to saving the lives of people with severe cases of COVID-19, which has now killed more than 16,000 people.

“The problem is that the need has surpassed China’s production capacity,” said Mr. Li, a manager at Tianjin Sendi Hengsheng Technology Development Co. Ltd. The company has struggled to secure raw materials from Japan, and local pandemic lockdowns have kept some personnel from returning to work. The company currently has fewer than 10 employees on site.

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What’s happening in the market at the moment is “terrifying,” he said. “We are facing huge pressure now and are hoping to extend our capacity because we want to help people out. But it’s not something that can happen overnight.”

China boasts the largest manufacturing industry on Earth, with a fast-growing capacity to build medical devices and a history of making the goods the world needs at record speed.

But as the world struggles to amass the supplies and equipment needed to arm health-care workers and breathe life into the ill, Chinese manufacturers and international buyers are warning against placing too much faith in China’s manufacturing colossus.

“They’re meeting the demands of the Chinese people. But is there any extra for the rest of the world? There is, but there’s not much,” said Stephen Budisa, a Canadian-Australian who owns Panxi Trading Co., which has sought to source protective masks and suits. Shortages of key components – such as the pumps for bottles of hand sanitizer or the infrared sensors in thermometer guns – have hampered output in China.

Government interventions have further complicated matters. In the midst of the deadly outbreak in China, authorities posted officials at factories around the country to ensure that every mask they made was used for domestic government priorities, Mr. Budisa said. On Monday, one of his suppliers told him those officials would remain in place until April 15.

Elsewhere in China, authorities are shouldering out private buyers to secure supplies for foreign countries hand-picked by Beijing.

One buying agent in China, Michael Michelini, was working to secure 60 million masks for the Mexican government. On Monday morning, however, he received notice that his services were no longer required. “The Mexican government is going directly to the Chinese government now,” he said. The Chinese government “is getting more and more actively involved in taking control of the supply chain in China,” said Mr. Michelini, who is host of the Global From Asia podcast.

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Those moves are set against a massive effort under way in China to increase the supply of goods such as masks. Makers of clothing, LED lights and e-cigarettes have all shifted to manufacturing masks. Automaker BYD is now making five million masks and 300,000 bottles of hand sanitizer a day. Inside China, the effect is evident: Masks are now available online and in grocery stores.

In Canada, however, shelves stand empty.

The World Health Organization warned on Feb. 7 about a chronic shortage of personal protective equipment. More than six weeks later, doctors and nurses in Canada have raised the alarm about domestic shortages of masks, gloves and other such equipment.

The Canadian government has put out a call for companies that can supply critical medical supplies and services. In China, Canadian diplomats have sent out requests on the messaging app WeChat for supplier recommendations. Among those who have responded is the group Alumni of Canadian Universities, which includes thousands of former students. Together they have collected the names of more than 20 suppliers of masks, ventilators and other supplies, said Frank Jin, a McGill University alumnus.

“Definitely, Chinese people are working right now to help Canada,” he said. It’s not clear, however, whether orders have already been placed in China.

“We have already purchased a broad range of personal protective equipment and supplies, including swabs, tests kits, gloves, masks and gowns,” said Stéfanie Hamel, a spokesperson at Public Services and Procurement Canada. “We continue to work with available suppliers, domestically and internationally, who have the capacity to respond to Canada’s needs.”

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Other countries have aggressively sought needed gear. Israel has turned to Mossad, its foreign spy service, to secure test kits, local media have reported, while the Israeli Defence Ministry has bought 2,500 ventilators. In the United States, Italy and Britain, the aerospace industries, automakers and vacuum cleaner manufacturers have been pressed to build ventilators.

Tan Xiaohua, the international trade business manager at Micomme Medical, which makes ventilators, has fielded inquiries from Italy, Brazil and France – but not Canada. One of the obstacles is certification: The company believes its products meet international standards, but it is not certified for use in North America – and completing that paperwork takes time. Other countries should consider relaxing certification requirements if they want products from companies such as his, Mr. Tan said. ”Exporting ventilators is no longer just a question of business, it’s a matter of saving people’s lives,” he said.

Even then, there are limits to how much China has to offer.

BMC Medical Co. Ltd. is a Chinese industry leader that has FDA certification and, after months supplying domestic needs, is now sending virtually everything it makes to foreign markets. It has boosted output to 500 ventilators a day by extending daily work hours and calling workers in on weekends. Even so, an order placed today may not be filled until early May, said Jiang Dong, who oversees the company’s marketing department.

And merely making the ventilators may not be enough, as airlines cancel flights around the world. “Figuring out how to deliver each order is getting harder and harder,” he said. Air freight prices have jumped, too, although that’s a secondary concern.

“We can deal with higher prices,” he said. “But if there’s no flight, there’s nothing at all we can do.”

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With reporting by Alexandra Li

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