The new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China has infected nearly 2,000 people worldwide (mostly in China) and killed 56—numbers that look certain to increase. As the disease has spread throughout the country and abroad, numerous reports have noted that face masks are hard to get, for the public and healthcare workers alike.
In Hong Kong, where eight cases of the disease have been diagnosed to date, prices for face masks sold in pharmacies were up 30% on Jan. 24, according to the South China Morning Post. Online retailers have seen even more dramatic increases—on the popular site Taobao, the price of a 20-mask box jumped to 1,100 yuan ($158) on Jan. 21, up from 178 yuan in November, the BBC reports. Now, some online platforms are limiting how much vendors can raise their prices. In Shanghai, where 40 people have been diagnosed with the virus, lines to get into the pharmacy stretched down the block.
“This year we only want to have masks as New Year presents,” one Beijing resident told the Wall Street Journal.
The frenzy for face masks has meant big business for companies that make those products. Take Alpha Pro Tech, a Canadian company “in the business of protecting people, products and environments,” according to its website. It also sells face masks in China.
Between Dec. 27 and Jan. 24, the price of its stock increased from US$3.51 to $6.00.
Between Dec. 30 and Jan. 24, 3M, the most popular face mask brand in China, added $1.4 billion in market value. Honeywell, the American conglomerate that also sells face masks in China, added $500 million in market value in the same timeframe.
Public health experts note that while face masks can help prevent the spread of disease if worn properly, the best thing anyone can do to avoid getting sick is to wash their hands.