Millions of protective masks circulating around Europe do not protect sufficiently against coronavirus. For weeks now, Chinese manufacturers have been issuing fake certificates that do not guarantee compliance with any standards.
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Yesterday, "Wyborcza" revealed that the millions of masks that the state-owned KGHM company brought to Poland are useless. They do not have the appropriate certificates, which means that healthcare workers should not use them. Such was their assessment by the US government, which decided that they would not be admitted for circulation in the United States.

It turns out that many countries in Europe have a problem with protective equipment that governments are trying to provision during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Czech Institute of Chemical Processes has just finished testing one of the batches of masks ordered from China. The result: they turned out to be too small, they let in too much air and it was only after they were attached with insulating tape to the mannequin's face that they passed the tests. In France, the medical staff of one of the hospitals got masks from which metal connectors notoriously fell off, causing them to leak.

In the Netherlands, the government returned 600,000 masks that did not meet the safety standards. Estonians resigned from accepting a million items when it turned out that the certificate issued for them did not guarantee compliance with EU standards.

Industrial counterfeiting

Governments in Europe have been struggling with defective protective equipment for a month, and the scale of the problem is only now coming to light. A significant number of items in use do not have appropriate certificates confirming compliance with EU standards. Sometimes they are only certified by the manufacturer which has performed tests in its own laboratory.

The biggest problem, however, are counterfeit documents that are meant to serve as the evidence that the product meets the EU standards and has the CE mark. A lot of such protective masks found in Polish and Czech online shops present such documents. In most cases, they are issued by the Italian companies Ente Certificazione Macchine (ECM) or Celab. The scale of counterfeiting is so huge that both companies have posted on their websites a list of Chinese companies to whom they have never issued any documents, contrary to what is claimed online. At the same time, both companies admit that they are not at all entitled to assess personal protective equipment, such as masks, nor to issue CE marks indicating compliance with EU standards.

When the coronavirus pandemic erupted in March, the falsification of certificates reached an industrial scale. European governments began looking for any Chinese companies that would be ready to send masks. Many of them saw a huge opportunity in this. Some of them changed their production lines overnight.

According to the information provided by 'Wyborcza', out of 16 companies that provided Czechia with protective masks in March and April, four have never before been active in the medical industry. They were involved in production of parts for machines, paper products, toys, tools and trade in alcohol. There are more similar cases, e.g. in France, where the mask supply company was only producing silk scarves until March.

Apparently, however, with the outbreak of a pandemic in Europe, hardly any government was concerned about it. Equally unimportant was the question of who was the intermediary in the sale of masks from China.

As the Czech "Dennik N" recently wrote, there is no official information that would reveal with whom the government in Prague signed contracts concerning the procurement of equipment, because some of the Czech intermediaries in trade with China were, for example, registered as homeless or based in tax havens. Often the prices of the products they imported were significantly overstated.

28.04.2020, Merelbeke, Belgia, używane maski podczas specjalistycznego procesu odkażania w laboratorium ECCA.
28.04.2020, Merelbeke, Belgia, używane maski podczas specjalistycznego procesu odkażania w laboratorium ECCA.  Fot. Virginia Mayo / AP Photo

- There was a shortage of equipment at the time. Not just in our country, mind you, but also elsewhere, and it has raised prices around the world - Minister of Health Adam Vojtech responded to press charges. The case is currently being investigated by the Czech Supreme Audit Office.

Reality World, one of the main sponsors of the ANO Andrej Babis campaign in 2017, was also on the list of brokers. Orders for masks for Czech local governments were also carried out by David Snesel, former business partner of Prime Minister Babis. One of his companies - Black Consulting - has signed contracts to bring masks for several Czech local authorities. To one of the contracts were attached the certificates of both the above-mentioned Italian companies, which have no right to assess whether protective masks comply with EU standards.

Demand for masks and Polish documents

ICR Polska has also issued many certificates for products from China. KGHM used the documents issued by ICR as proof that the masks brought to Poland were safe. However, the certificate turned out to be fake.

The Estonian government also had doubts about the certificate issued by the Warsaw-based company. For this reason, it abandoned the purchasing of one million protective masks, which eventually hit the commercial market in the country.

As Tuula Jõesaar, a journalist of the newspaper "Eesti Päevaleht" says, the certificate issued by ICR Polska raised doubts because it did not clarify whether the imported masks meet EU requirements.

- Initially, the Estonian broker said they were surgical masks, later he changed the version and claimed that they were only protective masks. We do not know what their effectiveness is, they are only now being tested - says Jõesaar, at the same time adding that they have been admitted to the market because they are classified as the simplest model FFP1, which does not require any certificates.

So what document did ICR Poland issue in this case? As the director of the company Rafał Kalinowski admits - only a confirmation that the company producing the maska performed tests in its own laboratory. At the same time, he adds that no one from ICR Polska was in China and did not check whether the results are actually in line with what the manufacturer declares, because when issuing the so-called voluntary certificates they do not have such a requirement.

This small company, whose Polish headquarters is located in Warsaw's Saska Kępa, had hundreds of requests every week in March for the issue of such documents, despite the fact that they in no way signify that the product meets EU standards.

- Before March, such inquiries happened sporadically - admits Kalinowski. He suspects that the sudden interest comes from the fact that the company belongs to a Korean parent company that has numerous contacts with Chinese producers. When in March the demand for masks in Europe broke out, the Chinese started looking for certificates that would allow them to enter the EU market.

Indeed, to this day you can find the stock market news release of one of the Chinese companies from the beginning of March, which boasted obtaining the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and a certificate issued by ICR Poland. The announcement claimed that it was after obtaining green light from the two institutions that it decided to switch from the production of foil packaging to protective masks and send them to Europe.

Certificates available for online purchase

KGHM also used a supposed certificate issued by the FDA, a US governmental institution responsible for admitting goods to that market. FDA, however, does not issue such certificates for protective masks, and even if it did, they would not be valid in the European Union.

About a week ago, Chinese media began alerting local companies about fraudulent businesses issuing fake certificates. Examples of the most frequently issued documents - Italian ECM, Celab, ICR Polska, and FDA - appeared in the articles. According to the journalists, such offers to buy certificates often appear in the Chinese Taobao online store. Sellers offer alleged certificates at a price of between 8 and 28 thousand yuan (up to PLN around 16 thousand), and the entire "procedure" of issuing certificates lasts about three days.

It is likely that KGHM fell victim to such a fraud caused among others by the rapidly rising demand for medical equipment in Europe. The masks brought to Warsaw by the company arrived from China two weeks ago on board of the An-225, the largest aircraft in the world. At Warsaw Chopin Airline, the arrival of the cargo was greeted by a state delegation led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, as well as pro-government media. In his speech, Morawiecki claimed that the arrival of medical equipment was a remarkable success of the Polish authorities in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic. This message was repeated by the government many times over the ensuing week.

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