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Covid-19, a conundrum for PPE manufacturers

Dr Sanjiiiv Relhan | Updated on June 05, 2020 Published on June 05, 2020

Standards are needed for various protection levels at par with international norms   -  hocus-focus

An insider view of the industry’s journey, its twists and turns, and challenges

Will Covid-19 be a boon or bane for Indian makers of infection-prevention clothing, is a question we are still not able to answer.

In the second week of February 2020, manufacturers of infection-prevention clothing were in a dilemma on how to help healthcare workers. There were no clear guidelines about the novel coronavirus. And what ensued were long debates on Whatsapp groups to understand how coronavirus spreads, whether it is an aerosol or was it surface-borne. Research papers did not offer the required clarity either and the situation was confusing.

All this, even as pressure mounted regarding the safety of healthcare workers.

On February 27, the World Health Organization, in its Guidelines for Rational Use of PPE (personal protective equipment), made it clear that the coronavirus doesn’t act as Ebola and hence a coverall, also known as Ebola PPE, was not required. The guidelines suggested surgical gowns preferably impervious to fluids as primary safety gear for the body, along with other protective accessories such as head-gear, eye-protection, gloves and respiratory protection.

This was the clarity our industry was seeking and it was now time to act.

All registered manufacturers started working towards creating a stockpile of gowns that were impervious to fluids; some of them also made coveralls (similar to a single-piece bodysuit) as they were the practical option when lots of movement is anticipated by the person wearing it.

But in the absence of national standards for PPE, the demands from various Government and private hospitals varied in their specifications and that became the other enigma for manufacturers. What were the standards to be followed?

Finally, the Union Health Ministry came out with its ‘Rational use of PPE guidelines’, which provided specifications for the coveralls. But this was not the end of our problems, in fact it was just the beginning of the struggle for manufacturers, as within 24 hours, India went into lockdown.

There was only one lab in Coimbatore to test the prototype coverall against the Ministry specifications and there were no couriers, no trains, no flights. Production came to a standstill for a few days as there were no permissions, no raw materials, no workforce — and the demand was surging to a new peak.

But thanks to multiple Government arms, including those governing textiles, pharmaceuticals, small and medium industries, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, Invest India, working closely with industry representatives like the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry and the Preventive Wear Manufacturers’ Association of India, this “Make in India” challenge was taken up.

The industry associations kept the ministries informed of production and supply-chain bottlenecks and within weeks, the industry was not only manufacturing PPE coveralls but also helping manufacturers from other garment sectors via the Apparel Exports Promotion Council to meet the surge in demand. The Textiles Ministry set up up more labs with the Defence Research and Development Organisation, the Ordnance Factory Board and Heavy Vehicles Factory, and this helped ease the testing of prototype samples.

By the end of April 2020, India was producing sufficient numbers of PPE coveralls to meet the country’s requirement. But these moments of joy were temporary. As the country celebrated that India had become the second largest producer of PPE coveralls, many of the experienced medical gear manufacturers from the medical devices industry were tense about the safety and comfort of healthcare workers.

The reason for this has been the absence of a National Standards & Regulatory Framework. Fly-by-night operators, who saw a bleak future in their existing businesses, jumped into manufacturing PPE coveralls, as it presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to earn quick bucks by using the services of tailors doing contract manufacturing for them. The Health Ministry’s guidelines asked for “fluid penetration resistance” as the only parameter, which was easily achievable with any laminated non-woven material. So, without understanding the role of comfort, dubious makers flooded the market with substandard PPE coveralls, which were more like rain coats at throwaway prices.

Now, India prepares to export PPEs and that’s the next mystery to be solved. We are ready for exports with spare capacities, but will we meet global regulatory requirements that could be different from India’s needs?

The industry needs to upgrade its technical skills, Nationals standards are needed for various protection levels at par with international norms and a regulatory framework is needed to ensure compliance with these standards. This can solve the conundrum and make India a preferred supplier to the globe for quality infection-prevention clothing. The beginning of a new era.

The writer is Chairman, Preventive Wear Manufacturers’ Association of India. Views are personal

Published on June 05, 2020
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