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Unicharm joins Japan's quest for more N95 masks amid COVID wave

Hospitals run low on supplies as number of coronavirus patients increases strain

Unicharm and other Japanese companies last year increased their domestic production of N95 masks to 15 million, up from 550,000 before the pandemic. (Source photos by Unicharm and Kyodo)

TOKYO -- Unicharm, the Japanese consumer goods group known for diapers and feminine hygiene products, plans to start producing 1 million medical-grade masks per month by spring.

In addition, Koken, Japan Vilene are ready to increase production of N95 masks.

The medical-grade masks, which prevent fine particles from being breathed in, are in short supply, with the number of COVID-19 cases growing since the end of autumn. Their scarcity is another factor that is putting medical services under strain.

Tokyo Medical University Hospital, which cares for patients with severe symptoms, has enough N95 masks for one month. Ideally, the hospital keeps enough of the masks on hand for three months.

Unicharm is Japan's biggest maker of consumer masks. In the N95 drive, it is being joined by Koken, which is increasing production by about 40% and expects to make 2 million of the masks this month. Vilene plans to increase production by 10% by March.

Unicharm will consider further increasing its production of N95 masks over time.

According to the Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association, domestic companies' monthly N95 mask capacity was 15 million at the end of 2020, up from 550,000 before the pandemic. Combined with production increase and imports, maximum supply is estimated to surpass 20 million, not enough to guarantee adequate supplies should the virus rage on.

Demand for medical masks is rising globally. Under President Joe Biden, the U.S. is set to urge domestic makers to increase production of N95 coverings. Germany is making it compulsory to wear N95 or equivalent masks when shopping and using public transit.

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