In the end of March 2020, the Bulgarian government announced it will sign contracts for the supply of personal protective gear and medical equipment with the Chinese National Pharmaceutical Foreign Trade Corporation.
By means of a decision of the Council of Ministers of 27 March 2020, the Ministry of Health was authorized to purchase 1,176,770 face masks for the amount of EUR 1,412,124 and 50 ventilators for the amount of EUR 1.5 mln., financed by the Operational Programme “Regions in Growth”.
“As an expert civil society organization, we believe that citizens’ trust in institutions and in the adequacy of the decisions and measures adopted by the authorities is of vital importance the success of efforts to handle the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Boyko Stankushev, director of the Anti-Corruption Fund Foundation (ACF). “Notwithstanding the state of emergency and the current crisis, the public have the right to be informed about all important aspects of the decisions taken by the government.”
The Council of Ministers’ announcements regarding the two orders do not provide sufficient details about the terms of the orders or the specifications of the purchased protective gear and medical equipment. In particular, it remains unclear whether the ordered masks are surgical masks or masks compliant with the N95 standard or higher, which are known to offer a greater level of protection and are traded at much higher prices on the international market.
The decision to import medical equipment from China comes after the government spent a month convincing the public that Bulgarian industry has the capacity to supply quality medical equipment at much cheaper prices, compared to those on the international market. For instance, on 11 March 2020, Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, and Minister of Health, Kiril Ananiev, stated that the samples provided by Bulgarian manufacturers of protective clothing were entirely compliant with the relevant requirements and that production of such clothing was starting. The minister of health announced that 70,000 protective coats and masks have been ordered for medical personnel attending to COVID-19 patients.
It was later confirmed that the three big Bulgarian factories that will satisfy the country’s needs for protective clothing, fabrics, and masks were Intendantsko Obsluzhvane and Mak in Gabrovo, and Apolo in Vratsa. On 31 March 2020, Mr. Ananiev announced that there were at least ten Bulgarian manufactures who “were actively producing face masks of excellent quality and much cheaper price than the prices of imported masks.” On 3 April 2020, the Prime Minister stated that the company Areksim in Smolyan would start producing high-quality protective goggles and helmets for medical personnel. According to the information published by the Prime Minister, the Smolyan-based company has the capacity to produce up to 200,000 high-quality protective goggles and helmets per month. On 4 April 2020, Mr. Borisov stated that Bulgarian manufacturers have the capacity to produce around 1 million surgical masks per week and can even take part in an international order for supplying the needs of EU member states.
To date, there has been no information regarding the contractual relations between the government and the four manufacturers of protective clothing. It is not clear what procurement orders – if any – have been negotiated with them, under what terms and for what prices.
The lack of information about the import and domestic production of protective equipment, as well as the apparent discrepancy of the decision to import masks versus earlier statements of the government, undermine the public trust in the effectiveness and lawfulness of the measures undertaken by authorities. ACF believes that it is in the public interest for the government to disclose as much information as possible about the above-mentioned deals. The expenditure of public funds for handling the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis should be carried out in full transparency.
In view of the above, ACF submitted a request to the Ministry of Health under the Access to Public Information Act, asking for copies of the contracts concluded with the Chinese National Pharmaceutical Foreign Trade Corporation and with the Bulgarian manufacturers of personal protective equipment. We believe that the received public information will promote the transparency of the domestic and national deals made by the government in order to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This information is necessary for the discussion of topics of high public interest. Its disclosure will help prevent the dissemination of unverified information and will put an end to speculations regarding the terms of the contracts,” said Mr. Stankushev.
ACF is submitting the access to information request after having sent an inquiry to the Ministry of Health over e-mail during the previous week. The initial inquiry posed the following questions which have not been answered yet:
1. What types of masks have been ordered from the Chinese National Pharmaceutical Foreign Trade Corporation: single-use, reusable, with or without filters? Are there specifications for the material of the ordered masks?
2. What is the timeline for supplying the medical products under the contract with the Chinese National Pharmaceutical Foreign Trade Corporation?
3. What is the total number of masks that will be received and what is the total price paid for them? What is the reason for the difference in prices between the two cited orders from the Chinese National Pharmaceutical Foreign Trade Corporation? Have there been any negotiations for a lower price and how was the final price agreed?
4. Have there been any negotiations with Bulgarian manufacturers for the production and supply of surgical masks, parallel to the negotiations with the Chinese Corporation? If yes, what terms and prices were offered by the Bulgarian manufacturers per mask, what were the types of masks and their specifications, and what was the proposed timeline for completing the prospective order?
ACF will continue to monitor the development of this topic and is working hard to ensure institution’s actions are adequately and comprehensively monitored by civil society during the state of emergency period.