Scramble for virus supplies strains global solidarity

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Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

FILE - In this March 22, 2020 file photo distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, a military truck loads medical supplies for Italy on a board of an Il-76 cargo plane in Chkalovsky military airport outside Moscow, Russia. From tiny San Marino wedged next to two of Italy's hardest-hit provinces in the coronavirus outbreak to more economically powerful nations like Italy, countries are running up against export bans and seizures in the scramble for vital medical supplies. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Alexei Yereshko, Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

ROME – San Marino needed medical masks. Badly.

The tiny republic, wedged next to what would be two of Italy’s hardest-hit provinces in the COVID-19 outbreak, had already registered 11 deaths by March 17 — a sizeable number in a country of just 33,000, and a harbinger of worse to come. So authorities sent off a bank transfer to a supplier in Lugano, Switzerland, to pay for a half-million masks, to be shared with Italian neighbors.

The next day, the truck returned, empty. The company was refusing to provide the masks.

Said Dr. Gabriele Rinaldi, director of San Marino's Health Authority: “It was a very bitter lesson.’’

It’s not clear whether the mask supplier, which was not identified, refused to deliver because another customer offered more. But what is clear is that the oft-proclaimed solidarity among nations waging battle against the pandemic has been tested — if not shattered — by national and corporate self-interest.

A health official in France's hard-hit eastern region said U.S. officials swooped in at a Chinese airport to spirit away a planeload of masks that France had ordered.

"On the tarmac, the Americans arrive, take out cash and pay three or four times more for our orders, so we really have to fight," Dr. Jean Rottner, an emergency room doctor in Mulhouse, told RTL radio.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris on Friday insisted that no one from the federal government bought masks destined for France. President Donald Trump has suggested, however, that states get their own medical equipment to fight the virus, setting off a mad scramble among state officials.