|21 February, 2020

Hong Kongers set up face mask factory amid coronavirus panic buying

After Hong Kong reported its first case of the virus last month, panicky residents queued at dawn, waiting for pharmacies to open to buy masks and sanitary wipes.

A resident wearing mask and raincoat volunteers to take temperature of passenger following the outbreak of a new coronavirus at a bus stop at Tin Shui Wai, a border town in Hong Kong, China February 4, 2020.

A resident wearing mask and raincoat volunteers to take temperature of passenger following the outbreak of a new coronavirus at a bus stop at Tin Shui Wai, a border town in Hong Kong, China February 4, 2020.

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

HONG KONG  - Responding to shortages of face masks amid a frightening coronavirus epidemic spreading from the mainland, a group of citizens in Hong Kong have set up a surgical face mask factory to ease supplies and deter price gouging in some stores.

After Hong Kong reported its first case of the virus last month, panicky residents queued at dawn, waiting for pharmacies to open to buy masks and sanitary wipes.

The group that decided to do something about the lack of masks is led by a film maker who would only give one name, Tang, due to fear that he could be perceived as critical of authorities in the Chinese-ruled city.

"I got angry looking for masks, they're either all sold out, or the masks that are from overseas are sold at an inflated price," Tang said, wearing a mask, at the factory set up close to the border with the mainland.

"So I thought, making a mask isn't that hard, just some fabric sewn together, how about I make my own factory"

Tang and his financial backers paid $150,000 to import a machine from a factory near Chennai, in India. It makes 100,000 masks per day, and Tan hopes to have eight machines running by April.

Latest figures show Hong Kong has 69 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and suffered two deaths. In mainland China, where the virus originated, there were around 74,000 cases, as of Thursday, and there have been over 2,100 deaths.

The masks made in the citizen's group will be sold exclusively online for HK$1 (13 U.S. cents) a piece.

Tang hopes this will deter shops from trying to gouge customers, which some are presently doing by charging prices up to HK$10 a piece, despite some pharmacies handing out masks for free.

Tang receives grants from the government for film making, and his other financial backers also did not want to risk being perceived as critical of the authorities.

The authorities in Hong Kong have become more sensitive to criticism after months of pro-democracy protests rocked the Chinese-ruled city last year. ($1 = 7.7869 Hong Kong dollars)

(Reporting by Pak Yiu; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Simon Cameron-Moore) ((marius.zaharia@thomsonreuters.com; +852 2843 6358; Reuters Messaging: marius.zaharia.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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