Suppliers Strain to Meet Demand For Protective Medical Suits as Ebola Epidemic Continues

Demand for full medical protective suits is high as the Ebola epidemic spreads in Africa and threatens to reach other parts of the globe. As a consequence, suppliers of the suits are struggling to keep up.

To make the situation even more difficult, there are only a small number of companies that actually manufacture the types of protective suits needed for Ebola protection. These suppliers are increasing production (some by as much as three times normal levels), but meeting the actual demand is still proving to be difficult.

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US Demand Depletes Africa’s Available Supply

We would think the highest demand is coming from West Africa where more than 15,300 cases of Ebola have been reported (mainly from Liberia and Sierra Leone). However, right now the US is buying up a large portion of the protective suits. (So far, the US has had 4 Ebola cases.) The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bought $2.7 million worth of the Personal Protective Equipment (or PPE) suits from DuPont Co., nearly wiping out the company’s supplies, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. The CDC requires hospitals and fire stations to have protective suits on hand in case an Ebola patient arrives or dials 911.

This has created a lack of available supplies to protect doctors who are treating Ebola patients in Africa is concerning. Here is an excerpt from the WSJ article:

“On the front lines of West Africa’s epidemic, aid groups say the shortage of protective suits is one more source of stress. The agency Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, has complained of flight cancellations and travel bans that make it harder to get doctors to the field. Now it says it has to worry about whether medics will have adequate protective garb when they get there.”

Jean Pletinckx, emergency coordinator of MSF, said the organization stockpiled PPEs to last through June. Those supplies have run out, though. He told the WSJ in his more than 20 years with the organization, “this is the first time that I’ve had such high stress.”

Prices Rising, Too

Perhaps not surprisingly, as demand for the suits has gone up, so have the prices of the materials. According to the WSJ, the price of face masks went from $2.14 each to $2.74 in a matter of 5 weeks.

Some saw supply shortage and price increases coming. At the beginning of November, Dr. Michael Edmond, chief quality officer at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, told Modern Healthcare he expected this situation to arise as PPE orders jumped. He has been following PPE prices with the Ebola PPE Price Index tool online, and warned that suppliers count take advantage of the situation. Suppliers could “charge more or sell things that are not appropriate,” he told Modern Healthcare.

Suppliers Share Demand Data

One PPE maker, Medline Industries, of Mundelein, Illinois, reported a 40% increase in demand for its face shields and a 50% increase in demand for its isolation gowns. Irvine, California, based company Bio-Medical Devices also said orders for its masks were 10 times higher as of Nov. 1 than a month prior.

DuPont said it tripled its production of PPEs and had added more workers and shifts in order to manufacture a higher number of the suits. However, the company is still short on supply.

Lakeland Industries Inc., which is based in New York and received 1 million orders for PPEs recently, actually purchased new machines to produce mores suits and has hired additional staff.

The PPE Category as Most Companies Know It

The PPE category is a sizable spend area for many manufacturers and natural resource operators (e.g. agribusiness, forestry, mining, petrochemicals like oil & gas). The higher-end products covered in the WSJ article are particularly used by those in either pharmaceutical, medical or other life sciences, or in sensitive electronics industries like wafer plants (e.g. circuit boards, processors, cellphone and video displays), and higher-end food processing. There are also public sector needs, including first responders and others with HazMat concerns. Requirements vary by industry, as do approving or standard setting agencies – with certificates coming from CE, ISO, FDA, NFPA, depending on industry and application.

Typically, the PPE category is less headline-capturing than the Ebola scare. More "normal" use cases would consist of central procurement first discovering (via spend analytics and supply base assessments) that business unit users are buying a vast range of boots, gloves, coveralls, helmets, hearing protectors, etc., either because of personal preference or because of local supplier stocking habits. The spend category is eminently suitable to a streamlining effort where the variety of consumables are narrowed down and tied to business process needs - and local distributors then asked or required to stock those items, potentially extending the company's contracting terms to smaller distributors that lack spend leverage to get better terms on their own.


Rarely, is any PPE item an "at risk item” - most of the consumables are well represented by a range of suppliers, in a variety of materials, sizes, colors and so on. The WSJ points to a passing demand surge that will quickly blow over as other manufacturers with similar product lines switch production capacity to address these "windfall" orders. As soon as hospitals, response teams, not-for-profits, government agencies, etc., have stocked up, the pricing should plummet and availability becomes a non-issue again.

The falling oil prices are likely to help suppliers justify increasing production capacity - as most items have considerable petrochemical content. Conversely, when the demand bubble passes, if oil prices then trend upward, these suppliers will face falling demand and increased input material pricing. Then there is the current low cost of capital to factor in. Potentially not a good cost equation - it looks like we should expect industry consolidation in this area of PPE items in a few years.

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