The idea of having protective medical masks produced by Belgium’s own industry is “pretty much impossible” to achieve in the short term, according to Centexbel, the technical and scientific centre for the Belgian textile industry.
The idea was mooted by federal health minister Maggie De Block as a possible response to the shortage of masks for use by medical professionals dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.
The shortage is largely caused by panic buying by the public, despite the fact that medical advice is that wearing a mask will do little or nothing to protect against the virus.
In some cases, thieves have even stolen masks from hospital stocks, where they are most of use.
Since imports are likely to take some time to make up the shortfall, given the worldwide demand, De Block suggested Belgium could make its own.
“For the time being, that’s not an option,” said Marc Croes, a consultant for Centexbel on hygiene and medical supplies.
“In the short term I also don’t have much hope,” he said.
Belgium lacks the raw materials for the masks, which are also in demand, while at the same time there is not the manufacturing capacity.
“That requires specially-designed machines,” Croes said. “There is no existing capacity here.”
Doctors have expressed concern at the lack of materials, including masks and testing kits. While the simplest of masks used to cost cents each, the price – when available – has risen tenfold. The more effective FFP3 mask has gone up to €200 each.
Doctors and other medical personnel, they point out, come into contact with many more infected people than most members of the public, and for longer periods. Exposure to other infections on a daily basis can also mean their own immune systems are weakened. And, while the FFP masks are not suitable for members of the public, medical personnel are more likely to know how to use them effectively.