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Coronavirus

Thai billionaire races to build mask factory in coronavirus fight

CP Group's Dhanin invests $3m, aiming to supply hospitals

Dhanin Chearavanont, senior chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group, said his company will construct a mask factory to help Thailand deal with the novel coronavirus.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's richest man looks to build a factory in five weeks to begin production of 3 million hygienic masks monthly, as the country combats the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

Dhanin Chearavanont, senior chairman of top Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group, said Thursday that CP will invest roughly 100 million baht ($3.19 million). The group's main companies focus on livestock farming, food processing, retail and telecommunications, but mask production is not an area of expertise.

"We will utilize our global network to source machines and materials of hygienic standard, with the objective to help with the prevention especially for COVID-19," the group said, referring to the disease caused by the new virus.

CP Group intends to supply the masks for free to medical staff at hospitals in need, and also to people who may lack access to masks to protect themselves.

CP joins several Asian companies that are moving into mask production to cope with the outbreak. Top global electronics manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Industry, also known as Foxconn, decided to build its own production line for surgical masks in Shenzhen early last month to ensure enough supply for its workers returning from the Lunar New Year holiday.

Japanese electronics maker Sharp, a Foxconn group company, decided to convert clean rooms designed for producing liquid crystal display panels into lines for making surgical masks.

Dhanin ranked as the 75th-richest person worldwide in Forbes' Billionaires 2019 list, with wealth estimated at $16.4 billion as of Thursday. He is the youngest of four Chearavanont brothers, who contributed to the exponential expansion of the nearly 100-year-old conglomerate. The Chearavanont brothers led the Thailand's Richest list compiled by Forbes.

Thailand currently reports 47 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with one fatality.

The mask shortage is apparent on the streets of Bangkok. Stocks evaporate as soon as they arrive in stores. Yet online flippers are selling masks at far higher than the normal price. An online shopper was charged 20 baht per surgical mask, which used to cost 0.7 baht.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Wednesday that an investigation will be conducted into the shortage.

Charoen Pokphand Foods, the conglomerate's food processing arm, said Wednesday it will supply food to individuals suspected of having COVID-19 as well as to medical staff at public hospitals nationwide.

A quick recovery from the outbreak also offers returns for CP. Travel restrictions imposed by various countries have harmed Thailand's tourism industry, which accounts for roughly 20% of the country's gross domestic product.

CP Group and real estate subsidiary Magnolia Quality Development share a 49% stake in Iconsiam, a luxury mall on west bank of the Chao Phraya River that draws many tourists, especially from China.

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