Huge quantities of used medical gloves have been shipped from Thailand as shady operators seek to cash in on Covid-fuelled demand for personal protective equipment, or PPE, according to a report from CNN following a months-long investigation. With demand having skyrocketed around the world, an underground industry based around reusing PPE has emerged in Southeast Asia, with the shoddy medical equipment having in turn found its way into the international supply chain. According to the CNN investigation, tens of millions of dirty, second-hand nitrile gloves have reached the United States, with the potential to place frontline healthcare workers and patients at risk.
Criminal investigations are now underway in both the United States and Thailand, however the true scale of the problem may be far greater than it appears at first blush. As countries around the world struggle to keep up with PPE demand, global shortages are set to remain an issue in the coming years, giving rise to fly-by-night outfits trying to make a quick buck. Adding to the issues faced by US authorities, import regulations related to protective medical equipment were temporarily suspended in the wake of the pandemic, and remain so to this day.
As one expert told CNN, nitrile gloves are the “most dangerous commodity on Earth right now”. Meanwhile, a US businessman, who placed an order for about US$2 million of gloves from Thai-based company Paddy the Room, described receiving washed and recycled gloves, some of which “had bloodstains”, noting he “couldn’t believe my eyes”. The gloves ultimately found their way to a landfill, with the businessman notifying US authorities.
CNN cites a Food and Drug Administration statement that import under the relaxed rules is only allowed “as long as the gloves conform to the consensus standards and labelling cited in the guidance and where the gloves do not create an undue risk”. However, lack of physical checks at US ports has created the potential for PPE to slip through the cracks.
While the FDA did send an alert to its port staff that shipments from Paddy the Room required detention without physical examination, this occurred 5 months after two US businessmen had raised the alarm. Department of Homeland Security officials confirmed to CNN that there is an ongoing criminal investigation into the company.
Thai FDA agents raided the Paddy the Room last December, arresting the owner of the warehouse, however were unable to bring charges against the tenant, a Hong Kong resident. The company, meanwhile, simply relocated its operations.
Deputy Secretary-General of the Thai FDA, Supattra Boonserm, told CNN that “they just moved to another location, to another warehouse.”
“And why is that? Because the demand for gloves is still high. There are still customers waiting out there.”
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