At the start of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, face masks became a hot commodity, causing prices to rise globally. A year later, production has caught up with demand and prices have stabilized with no shortage of masks in sight, Estonian wholesalers confirm.
"The usual economic laws are valid. Manufacturers have caught up with their capabilities, demand has decreased and that has also brought down prices," said Toomas Villo, CEO of Eurosec, a company supplying defense, rescue, and security equipment in the Baltics.
While regular face masks were sold last spring at €0.50 a piece with the price reaching a full euro at times, the price of masks has now fallen to €0.05 a piece or even cheaper.
Villo told ERR the high supply and concurrent price drop has also been helped by the many new factories and production lines opened to meet the high demand. A simple production line costs a few hundred thousand euros and operating one is not too great an issue in Europe.
An issue however lies in the competition between countries with higher living standards and manufacturers in Asia when it comes to personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirators or protective suits, Villo noted. The advantage for Chinese companies is their great production capacity, which smaller manufacturers are just not able to compete with.
In addition to the fivefold increase in transport prices, mainly relating to a lack of containers, also having an effect on mask prices in Estonia, wholesalers might still have earlier, more expensively acquired masks, in storage that they do not want to sell away at cheaper prices.
"Masks in uglier packages and of lower quality might stay on the shelves," Villo said, adding that more well-known and reputable companies can still continue to charge higher prices for their face masks.
A spokesperson of another wholesaler company, who wished to remain anonymous, also confirmed to ERR that the supply of masks has caught up with demand. "There are some 60 providers of face masks in Estonia today. When at a time, masks were sold at €0.5-0.6 a piece, their price at procurement is now at €0.03," they admitted. "There should be no shortage of PPE - masks, respirators, coats, protective suits."
Aare Järvelaid, CEO of Mediq, a wholesaler of pharmaceutical, hospital and laboratory supplies, told ERR that the market helped in satisfying the widespread demand for masks. "The most extreme price for masks that I saw was €1 each. Today, the mask price at the Ministry of Finance and Tallinn City Office procurements is €0.04. The price in stores is a little different, true," he said.
Järvelaid said prices have normalized and there is no reason to believe they would increase anytime soon. "The state now has masks at very cheap prices and it should be possible to distribute them to people in need," he emphasized.
Toomas Villo also believes there will be no shortage of masks, even if another wave of COVID-19 were to come in the fall.
Rapid tests a new topic
While masks are all set, coronavirus rapid tests have become a hot commodity in their own. Some European countries have already begun selling them to the general public, Villo said.
At the same time, the anonymous spokesperson added that Estonia has been dismissive of the idea of rapid testing so far. "There are no tests currently that are allowed for home use. If there were such tests that a coronavirus skeptic could buy and test themselves - perhaps it could help lessen contacts," the wholesaler spokesperson said.
Järvelaid also spoke about the topic of rapid tests, saying Latvia and Finland are already moving toward implementing them.
Availability of gloves might become an issue
All three wholesaler representatives spoke about latex and nitrile gloves, saying the products are in a deficit worldwide. Pre-pandemic, the world consumed some 300 billion pairs of gloves, the demand has now reached 500 billion, Järvelaid said.
According to the spokespeople speaking to ERR, the lack of gloves is caused by a lack of raw material. Demand has however grown because gloves have now been put in use in countries where they were not before.
"The glove crisis continues and there is no improvement in sight. Prices have grown three to five times since before the crisis," Järvelaid said. He noted that Estonian hospitals are already in trouble as suppliers are unable to fill their contractual requirements.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste