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Coronavirus

Japan teams with 400 companies to cut reliance on China medical goods

40% of generic-drug makers warn that supply chains could fail in six months

Much of Japan's supply of masks, gowns and gloves are imported from China. Protective gear is in short supply worldwide amid the coronavirus outbreak.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- As the coronavirus pandemic brings Japan's dependence on imported medical supplies to the fore, the government has started working with more than 400 domestic companies to bolster production at home.

Generic drugs is among the most vulnerable fields. Japanese producers import around half of their active ingredients from China, South Korea and elsewhere. But the virus has snarled customs procedures around the world.

"Deliveries that would normally take four to five days are taking three weeks," a trading house said.

About 40% of 45 Japanese pharmaceutical companies surveyed by Nikkei said their supply chains could dry up in half a year. Towa Pharmaceutical is already adjusting shipments of hypertension medication and antibiotics.

Japan also imports more than 90% of its ventilators, crucial to treating coronavirus patients. Much of them come from Europe and the U.S.

"We are receiving more inquiries from domestic hospitals, but we don't know if shipments to Japan will increase, given how the outbreak is spreading in Europe and the U.S.," said Fukuda Denshi, which imports and distributes ventilators from Sweden.

China is Japan's key source for protective equipment, such as masks and gowns. About 70% to 80% of Japan's surgical masks are imported, mostly from China. Japanese manufacturers are poorly positioned to boost output of N95 masks, which are in extremely high demand.

Countries have been scrambling for masks as the pandemic spreads. While some companies like Sharp have entered the field in Japan, the country still faces a shortage.

The economy and health ministries here are compiling information on more than 400 companies that have volunteered to help make medical supplies, along with existing equipment manufacturers. The list will be provided to the Japan Medical Association and individual hospitals to help them more quickly find suppliers of the products they need.

The economy ministry will set up help desks nationwide and aim to enlist more companies in the effort.

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