Several countries in or neighbouring the EU have rejected Chinese-made coronavirus testing kits and protective equipment as substandard, raising concerns about the quality of supplies.
The Netherlands, Spain and Turkey have all claimed there have been problems with products including masks and tests, as rising confirmed cases of Covid-19 infection in Europe increase dependence on Chinese imports.
The claims come as tensions grow over what the EU’s top diplomat has branded Beijing’s use of the “politics of generosity” in a “battle of narratives” over who were the most reliable international partners in the global crisis.
The Dutch health ministry said at the weekend it was forced to recall 600,000 face masks shipped from China on March 21 after they were found to be defective.
The faults, which included the masks failing to fit the mouth and having insufficient filters, were found during inspections after some masks had already been distributed to hospitals, the government said.
Authorities said the masks, from an undisclosed source, came with a KN95 certificate which meant they should filter out at least 95 per cent of airborne particles.
“Healthcare providers have been informed and told not to use the masks,” the health ministry said in a statement. “Due to shortages, we can find ourselves in a situation where only protective equipment is available that does not meet the highest standards. This is an issue in all countries.”
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Josep Borrell, EU high representative for foreign policy, blogged last week that there was a “geopolitical component” to the Covid-19 crisis, including a “struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’”.
China was “sending equipment and doctors to Europe” and “aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner”, he said.
The Netherlands is among a growing number of European countries to receive medical equipment from China. Earlier this month, Chinese telecoms operator Huawei donated a separate delivery of 800,000 face masks to the country — the first batch of which was personally welcomed into the country by Hugo de Jonge, health minister.
In Spain, which has the world’s second highest official Covid-19 death toll after Italy, the ministry of health has said it withdrew 8,000 rapid testing kits delivered to Madrid’s regional government because of worries about inaccurate results. It also sent back an additional 50,000 testing kits that had not been distributed.
The Spanish government says the supplier, Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology, will replace them with 58,000 kits to the correct specifications in the “coming days”, as part of a total planned shipment of 640,000.
Shenzhen Bioeasy has said that the problems may have been because of incorrect sample collection or use of the product.
Spain says the order is separate from a €432m purchase of medical equipment from China announced last week, which includes 5.5m tests. The Chinese embassy in Madrid also stressed that the allegedly defective Shenzhen Bioeasy tests were not part of a consignment it helped arrange.
In Turkey, the government has said that it has found an unspecified number of antigen test kits sent from China to be substandard, causing it to reject them before they were used on any patients.
Ateş Kara, a member of the Turkish government’s coronavirus scientific advisory committee, said the margin of error on the antigen tests was too high, creating the risk of false negatives. “We wanted all the tests to be totally accurate,” he said.
Mr Kara said that Turkey was happy with 350,000 rapid antibody testing kits it had also bought from China. All the tests bought by Turkey were purchased directly from private companies, rather than through the Chinese government, according to a person familiar with the matter.