11:53 GMT06 June 2020
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    The first batch of a billion face masks ordered by the French government to fight the Covid-19 pandemic landed near Paris on 29 March, as Olivier Véran, the French health minister said the country required 40 million face masks per week to face the coronavirus outbreak, while lamenting the current weekly production capacity of just 8 million.

    Coronavirus masks that France ordered from China to fight the COVID-19 pandemic were snatched up by the US at the last minute as the protective supplies were on the tarmac, waiting to be loaded onto cargo planes, French officials cited by France Info have said.

    Renaud Muselier, president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, was cited as revealing that during a meeting between regional officials, one of them "explained that his order for masks had been “hijacked” at the airport by the Americans, who paid three-fold for the protective supplies.

    Renaud Muselier did not give the name of the region or the number of masks thus whisked away.

    Muselier said the US had offered to pay in cash, and the plane that was to head for France went directly to the United States.

    Faced with these problems, the regional official said he had ordered some 60 million masks, with 4 million scheduled to arrive by Saturday. To rule out delivery problems, the official said he had opted for a different, sea route, instead.

    "At least that way, I can be sure that no one will steal my masks from the tarmac," said Muselier, adding:
    “Logistically speaking, taking different routes is an intense struggle."

    ​Jean Rottner, the head of France's eastern region, one particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus outbreak, was cited as confirming:

    "Americans pay three or four times the amount we pay, and in cash."

    The official blasted unfair competition for the delays, adding:

    "We're working around the clock to ensure these masks arrive."

    The United States, which now has the highest number of registered coronavirus cases in the world, has been trying to procure masks at any cost, suggested French daily Liberation citing sources that intimated Washington was disrupting deliveries to other nations.

    "Sure, masks are becoming rare commodities, and Americans buy them wherever they are, regardless of the price,” the source reportedly said, adding the US pays "double and cash, even before having seen the goods."

    Criticism has been levelled at the United States, like France, for lack of preparedness in dealing with COVID-19, as well as alleged covert efforts by Washington to make up the shortfall, writes France Info.

    A couple wearing masks poses for a selfie near the Louvre Pyramid in Paris
    © REUTERS / Charles Platiau
    A couple wearing masks poses for a selfie near the Louvre Pyramid in Paris

    Earlier, the outlet reported that France plans to dramatically increase its capacity to produce face masks and respirators, as President Emmanuel Macron called for European “independence” and “sovereignty” in producing the protective gear by the end of the year.

    "Before the crisis we produced 3.3 million masks per week; at the end of April we’ll be at more than 10 million. We will have more than tripled in a few weeks,” Macron said at the Kolmi-Hopen mask factory outside the city of Angers.

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    Emmanuel Macron, coronavirus, COVID-19, US, China, France, France
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