‘Our goal is to produce as much as possible’ Russia is producing far less PPE than its doctors need — ‘Meduza’ asks the country’s deputy industry and trade minister why
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Russian doctors have continuously voiced complaints about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE): masks, respirators, and protective suits are all in short supply. The Industry and Trade Ministry (also known as “Minpromtorg”) is one government department responsible for supplying doctors with PPE. Meduza spoke with Deputy Industry and Trade Minister Viktor Evtukhov about shortages of protective gear, and the contradictory decision to partially lift the ban on exporting PPE.
The supply chain for medical equipment in Russia is far from straight forward. As Deputy Minister Viktor Evtukhov explains, PPE is distributed to the regions according to pre-arrange agreements, and on the basis of information from the Health Ministry. “We do not give PPE to medical institutions directly, but through applications from the regional authorities,” Evtukhov says. “This applies to masks, protective suits, respirators, protective gloves, glasses, and deliveries of drugs.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s public health watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, is the one responsible for monitoring the availability of PPE, and reporting back to the Health Ministry. So when it comes to shortages at hospitals themselves, Evtukhov claims he can’t speak to what’s happening there. When it comes to retail and supply shortages, however, he has a lot more to say.
According to Evtukhov, Minpromtorg has authorized two organizations to supply Russia with PPE: “Roskhimzashchita” (a subsidiary of the state-owned industrial conglomerate “Rostec”) and the private medical supplier, “Delrus.” Apparently, the latter brings in supplies of PPE from China, and then assembles a portion of the products in Russia itself. “Delrus has a big contract with the Federal Penitentiary Service,” Evtukhov says. There are also a number of domestic manufacturers whose products pass through Delrus, including producers of masks, disinfectants, and respirators.
In an effort to consolidate production during the pandemic, Minpromtorg wrote letters to the country’s manufacturers of raw materials needed for producing PPE in April, asking them to sell as much raw material as possible to Roskhimzashchita. Initially, Roskhimzashchita was supposed to be the only corporation supplying the Russian regions with masks and protective gear — but this only lasted about a week.
What happened with Roskhimzashchita?
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed and order declaring Roskhimzashchita the country's single PPE supplier on April 3. It was published and came into force three days later. However, on April 14, the Cabinet of Ministers cancelled the decision, "in order to give more time for preparations," a source told the state-news agency TASS.
After this decision to backtrack, Roskhimzashchita received a registration certificate for the production of protective suits through 51 Russian manufacturers. The state-owned corporation now purchases a significant portion of medical raw materials for these manufacturers, and then supplies the end products to the regions.
In the meantime, other manufacturers complained about a deficit of raw materials — something Evtukhov denies: “There were no mass complaints, it’s not true,” he says. Apparently, everything is available “on the free market, including under contracts with manufacturers of medical supplies.”
“As you know, there were a large number of appeals from medical workers, [saying] that there are not enough of these particular ‘Tyvek’ brand disposable suits. On top of the fact that we are shipping these suits from China, in light industry we have reached production volume of 100,000 plus suits per day,” Evtukhov claims. “The consolidation of raw materials has allowed us to maximally reduce the deficit of disposable protective suits.”
Moreover, Evtukhov says that since there is currently no official decree in place, Roskhimzashchita is not operating under any kind of “special status.” “This is a company that has the financial resources and is helping us centralize the supply of raw material, industrial production, and supplies of products to the regions,” he says. “But currently nobody is obligated to work through Roskhimzashchita.”
At the same time, Russia’s Industrial Development Fund has offered Roskhimzashchita a subsidized loan of around 500 million rubles ($6.78 million). According to Evtukhov, this money is going towards “organizing all of this work.”
“Roskhimzashchita gives the producer materials, the producer sews the suits, Roskhimzashchita makes an advanced payment, then pays after the fact, collects the suits, and distributes [them] to the regions,” Evtukhov explains. “It’s a fairly complicated system.” Minpromtorg is using the same system for its work with the Federal Penitentiary System, as well. Through the private company Delrus, it has inmates at 260 correctional facilities working to sew medical masks.
Domestically produced protective outfits are starting to make their way into the hands of Russian doctors. And while PPE is badly needed, some have expressed doubts abouts the protective qualities of these particular suits. Evtukhov insists that he has faith in Roskihmzashchita’s products, since they are certified by the federal healthcare watchdog, Roszdravnadzor. “It’s another matter that our regions themselves are producing about 30,000 suits from different materials — these enterprises are not controlled by Roskhimzashchita,” he says.
Many of the 51 companies working under Roskhimzashchita have actually been reoriented towards producing protective gear, including companies that usually produce workwear or sportswear. “I think few people doubt their ability to sew anything. Far from all of them are working now, because there simply is not enough raw materials. The maximum that we will reach, taking into account the availability of raw materials, is 150,000 suits per day.”
That said, this is far less than the figure of 800,000 suits per day, which Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov previously voiced as the necessary amount. “To date, we have requests for around 3 million disposable protective suits. That’s in total, not per day,” Evtukhov says. “We have the Health Ministry standards, which our departments use. We don’t have a specific target figure, our goal is to produce as much as possible.”
Evtukhov points out that it’s important not to “bleed out” the industry, since manufacturing of other goods (like diapers and menstrual products) is still ongoing. However, on May 3, the Russian government partially lifted the ban on exporting medical supplies — a move that appears to contradict previous claims about domestic shortages.
“The ban on exports within in the Eurasian Union was lifted, but exports to third countries are forbidden. This was done so we could, for example, purchase surplus products from our neighbors,” Evtukhov clarifies. “There were offers from Kyrgyzstan for suits, and [our] colleagues from Belarus and Kyrgyzstan also offered us masks. We are currently looking at quality and prices. If necessary, we can purchase them.”
Moreover, Evtukhov insists that any PPE manufactured through Roskhimzashchita and Delrus will not be exported “without the government’s consent.” “Only when we know that our pandemic has begun to wane can we figure out if we have an opportunity to export something, and we are sure to implement this,” he says. “But as of right now none of these products will be exported.”
Text by Eilish Hart