The Ministry of Health has distributed compromised Chinese masks to COVID-19 front-line workers without even testing them

The Anti-Corruption Fund’s new video investigation, “The Mask Impossible,” reveals that the Ministry of Health (MoH) has distributed 1.2 million Chinese masks of compromised quality among people on the front lines against COVID-19.

At the end of March 2020, the Health Minister signed two contracts with China for the supply of nearly 3 million protective masks and 50 respirators worth EUR 4.6 million. The masks were produced by the Chinese companies RYZUR and HANGZHOU.

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Even before the agreements with China, media reports informed that RYZUR had imported to various countries defective masks, which did not provide the specified protection against COVID-19. Several states, including the Netherlands and Spain, returned their masks to China, and others required the manufacturer to indicate the actual level of protection on the label. Canada explicitly declared that it would not distribute the masks among its front-line workers. Despite all these reports, there was no explicit safeguard clause in Bulgaria’s contracts in case of delivery of defective masks by the supplier. Besides that, the contracts’ applicable law was the Chinese, whose specific rules were not specified.

In early May 2020, an American laboratory tested the RYZUR masks, model KN95B, Chinese standard GB2626-2006, European standard EN 149: 2001 + A1: 2009. It published an analysis of the results on its website. The results showed that the analyzed 10 masks’ filtration level was between 27 % and 33.9 % instead of the 99.2 % recorded in the manufacturer’s documentation. The MoH purchased the same type of masks under its first contract with China.

Considering the publications about the RYZUR mask’s compromised quality, we asked the government: “What were the measures taken by Bulgaria to protect the consumer’s rights under the supply contracts? Has Bulgaria tested the masks before distributing them?” said Boyko Stankushev, director of the ACF.

Several months after we first sent our questions, the MoH replied that it “does not have information about delivered masks of compromised quality.” The reply also revealed that MoH commissioned a test of the RYZUR masks in the Laboratory of Virology at Sofia University’s Faculty of Biology. The laboratory concluded that the masks provided “100 % protection of SARS-CoV-2-sized viruses.”

A detailed analysis of the test documentation, however, raised some alarming questions. As can be seen from the examination protocol, the testing ordered by the Ministry of Health included only one mask out of a total of 1.2 million received in 5 separate shipments, which renders it unrepresentative. The protocol does not specify the method of examination of the masks. The Virology Laboratory itself does not have accreditation from the Executive Agency “Bulgarian Accreditation Service,” the only Bulgarian institution entitled to accrediting laboratories assessing compliance.
In the end, the examination method and the accreditation of the laboratory turned out irrelevant because the protocol revealed that the test mask was not the same type as the masks purchased by Bulgaria. It is clear from the protocol that the only tested mask was RYZUR, green in color, corresponding to a European standard EN 14683: 2019 + AC. The only masks Bulgaria had purchased were RYZUR masks, model KN95B, Chinese standard GB2626-2006, European standard EN 149: 2001 + A1: 2009.

The analyzed information in the case revealed the following information:

1. Bulgaria had purchased RYZUR masks when there was available information about their problematic quality.
2. The contract did not provide for specific compensatory clauses for the purchasing side in case of a defect, and the law applicable to the contract was unknown to the Bulgarian side.
3. Bulgaria has not requested any further safeguards, such as re-labeling, price reduction, the return of quantities.
4. There is no information about discarded quantities of masks.
5. None of the 1.2 million RYZUR masks received in 5 shipments had actually been tested.
6. All the masks were distributed and used by people working on the front line against COVID-19.
7. There is no evidence that users are informed of the possible risks to their health.

“Considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the ACF asks: why the Ministry has not tested the masks, despite admitting they might have been compromised? Why, despite the information about their defects, they have been distributed? Does this pose a threat to the health of front-line workers? Have they been informed that the masks do not provide the specified level of protection and might pose a risk to their health and safety?”

“We are calling on the competent authorities to inspect why Bulgaria did not take the same measures to protect its medics’ health as Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, and other countries, which have received defective masks,” said Boyko Stankushev. “The ACF’s mission is to assist the institutions and help them avoid such practices in the future. Therefore, the ACF will report the case to the Prosecutor’s Office and provide all the relevant information.”

You can see the two parts of the ACF video investigation here: