Pharmacists warn sudden price cap on face masks could cause shortage

Malaysia
At RM1.50 a piece, the Malaysian Pharmacists Association suggested pharmacists would be selling at a loss since most had made bulk orders when the price was capped at RM2. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
At RM1.50 a piece, the Malaysian Pharmacists Association suggested pharmacists would be selling at a loss since most had made bulk orders when the price was capped at RM2. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, March 31 — The government’s decision to cap the price of the 3-ply face masks at RM1.50 could cause a supply shortage, pharmacists have warned, as they raised concern that the policy’s effect on margins could force manufacturers to halt production.

The Malaysian Pharmacists Association said in a statement critical of the move that community pharmacists will be the most hit by the newly-enforced ceiling price, which they alleged were executed without any prior consultation.

At RM1.50 a piece, the group suggested pharmacists would be selling at a loss since most had made bulk orders when the price was capped at RM2.

The masks were imported from foreign sources in the face of a domestic supply shortage from local manufacturers, who had been overwhelmed by the surge in demand as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded.

Each face mask is said to cost more than 0.80 sen, the group said.

“This sudden change will cause widespread hardship amongst community pharmacies, importers, wholesalers and manufacturers nationwide,” it said in a statement.

“We do believe that the government is fully aware that the masks cannot be obtained at RM0.80 and hence had increased the price to RM2.00.

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“This decision had at least allowed some masks to be imported/manufactured and made available for sale to the rakyat. However, with this reduction, we are afraid that this will again dry up the supply of face masks as even the local manufacturers are frustrated by this move.”

Demand for surgical masks shot through the roof as the number of Covid-19 infections soared over the last few weeks, overwhelming local producers to force pharmacists and the government to look to foreign suppliers for help.

The supply shortage was largely due to panic buying by the public seemingly confused by the thought that wearing a surgical mask could offer some protection from the coronavirus, despite repeated explanation by the Ministry of Health that only those exposed to infected patients would need them. 

Last week Prime Minister Tan Sri Muyhiddin Yassin said the government would be importing up to 10 million surgical masks from China. Most of them would be reserved for medical officers and public officials in the “frontline”, while the balance will be distributed free to the public.

The rest will have to buy them from local sellers. But in a seemingly populist move to placate a restless public, Muhyiddin said the price would be capped at RM1.50. 

The MPA, while expressing firm opposition to the new price, has pleaded that the authorities either subsidise or defer the price cap enforcement by a month to clear out their stocks, saying the period for the adjustment of ceiling price is unfairly short.

And it also denied suggestions that the pricing dispute is about making large profits.

“Market analysis and feedback have shown that when the ceiling price was raised to RM2.00, many community pharmacies placed orders for face masks as the cost price was slightly lower than RM2.00,” it said.

“Many had paid in full or paid 50 percent of the deposit for stocks which are only due to arrive in April 2020.

In Sabah and Sarawak, pharmacies are forced to import the masks at a high price of RM1.90 each, despite the government’s removal of import and sales tax, mostly due to transportation costs, it added.

“In states like Sabah and Sarawak the cost is still high due to transportation charges,” the group said.

“Therefore, many pharmacies in these states are receiving the face masks at the high price of RM1.90.”

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