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Business trends

New China virus spurs 24-hour output of surgical masks in Japan

Unicharm boosts production ahead of Lunar New Year travel

Wearing surgical masks as protection against disease and the environment is common throughout East Asia.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Orders for surgical masks have surged in Japan after the discovery of the first domestic case of infection by a previously unknown virus that originated in China.   

The Health Ministry confirmed Thursday a case of pneumonia caused by the new type of coronavirus, which has been traced to the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Mask orders from retailers surged on the news, and with the Lunar New Year on Jan. 25  approaching, increased demand from Chinese tourists who will bring the masks home is also expected.

Leading mask maker Unicharm on Friday switched domestic factories to three-shift, round-the-clock operations. The company will maintain increased production at least until the end of the month, when it will decide whether to pull back based on the number of orders.

Orders from drugstores and other retailers jumped more than 10-fold on Thursday when the announcement was made.

Drugstore chain Welcia Holdings immediately made additional orders. Demand for masks normally rises at this time of year due to influenza and other common illnesses, but the new coronavirus has added to the sense of urgency. Japan's Health Ministry as well as Chinese authorities recommend wearing the masks to protect against infection.

"There is the chance that we will sell out of the masks in several days due to explosive demand," according to a Tokyo shop employee.

The Lunar New Year is also on an early date this year, and the number of Chinese tourists in Japan who are buying the masks here in large quantities is already on the upswing in Tokyo. 

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