Coronavirus: Oxygen equipment meant for Ireland held back by Italy

Supplier cites recent Italian law that domestic need take precedence over exports

A patient with Covid-19 wears a transparent plastic helmet filled with oxygen at a hospital in Bergamo, Italy. Photograph: Fabio Bucciarelli/The New York Times

A patient with Covid-19 wears a transparent plastic helmet filled with oxygen at a hospital in Bergamo, Italy. Photograph: Fabio Bucciarelli/The New York Times

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Crucial medical supplies for Covid-19 patients in Ireland have been held back by a major supplier, citing restrictions on exports imposed by Italian authorities.

This is despite a European Union deal to drop export bans on medical equipment within Europe earlier this month.

The shipment is the first consignment in an order of 1,000 specially designed hoods, manufactured in Italy, which administer high-pressure oxygen to patients in a manner that reduces the risk of healthcare workers being exposed to the virus.

A spokesman for the importing company, Orega Systems, said it had ordered the units from its Italian partner at the start of the month, but they had not arrived. The equipment is destined for hospitals around the country.

A letter sent to Orega Systems by the Italian manufacturer, seen by The Irish Times, states: “We regret to inform you that the Italian government has imposed restrictions on the export of ventilators, hoods, full face masks and other devices used for providing respiratory therapies.”

“As these devices are considered essential products for treating those ill with the coronavirus, in this extraordinary emergency situation, manufacturers are obliged to supply the Italian hospitals and the Civil Protection Authority first.”

Non-invasive ventilation

The exporting company cited a law introduced on February 28th during the Covid-19 outbreak by Italy, which states companies must give priority to orders by Italian civil authorities for medical equipment, and makes exports of key goods subject to approval.

Dr Oisín O’Connell, a respiratory consultant in Bons Secours Hospital in Cork, said the hoods would enable non-invasive ventilation of patients with Covid-19. The machines detect difficulties in patients’ breathing and inject high-pressure oxygen into the hood. “For every breath, it gives you extra support. If you’re wrecked by this virus and you can barely take a breath, it will sense that and pump more in,” Dr O’Connell said. It has the added benefit of limiting the spread of virus breathed out.

The machines are high-end units available only to hospitals, not for retail use.

They are more flexible than ventilators, and can be deployed in a variety of hospital settings, meaning the treatment can be delivered in any room or corridor. They are significantly cheaper than ventilators, costing €2,500-€5,000 compared with up to €40,000, Dr O’Connell said.

Italy passed laws last month stating that protective equipment, ventilators and ventilator parts can only be exported if authorised by Italian Civil Protection. Other EU states such as Germany later imposed restrictions also.

Freedom of goods

The European Commission appealed for countries to drop such bans, saying they were contrary to freedom of goods in the single market. On March 15th the commission imposed an EU-wide ban on exports of crucial medical goods to countries outside the EU and European Economic Area, in an attempt to persuade EU states to continue supplying to each other.

But the blocking of supplies to Irish hospitals indicates this has failed to work.

“Obviously the export of medical goods made in Italy, that the nation needs, evidently creates a conflict,” a spokesman for Italy’s Civil Protection said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said it was “aware of this case and is working to extend all possible assistance in resolving this issue”.

The European Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Italian embassy did not respond to a request for comment.