TOKYO - As the supply of surgical masks in Japan's stores runs low amid fears of the new coronavirus from China, some have attempted to profit from the situation by offering masks for resale online at rates far higher than retail prices.
Manufacturers are at full throttle to produce enough surgical masks to meet the snowballing demand, but many consumers have been unable to find them in drugstores or convenience stores that normally offer a variety of the products ahead of Japan's hay fever season.
A pharmacy near JR Shimbashi Station in central Tokyo posted a warning that it would sell each customer or group no more than two bags of surgical masks, a measure intended to prevent people from buying large quantities of the product and reselling them for profit.
(A pharmacy in central Tokyo posts a notice that it would sell each customer or group no more than two bags of surgical masks.)
Anticipating the sharp rise in demand, the store had already increased its inventory considerably, but the stock is now running quite low. A female worker at the store said, "Sometimes we cannot receive shipments at all," although the store has been flooded with calls inquiring whether it has enough surgical masks.
A woman in her 20s visited another pharmacy and found that surgical masks were scarce there as well. Noting her concern about the potential spread of the pneumonia-causing illness, the woman said, "I really want people not to buy them for the purpose of resale."
According to Japanese flea market app operator Mercari Inc., many surgical masks are being offered at rates higher than retail prices.
One user presented two bags of seven surgical masks for 99,999 yen ($910), although the retail price of the product is just 405 yen per bag.
The operator has asked users to stay within a range of appropriate prices while consumer affairs bodies across the country have received complaints about price-gouging for the item during a time of elevated concern.
Akiko Ito, head of the Consumer Affairs Agency, told a press conference on Wednesday that purchasing surgical masks for the purpose of resale is undesirable, while urging consumers to act calmly.
The agency plans to work together with other government bodies such as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to stabilize the prices of the masks.
The agency will also ask cooperation from online market operators to address the concern.
San-M Package Co., a leading manufacturer of surgical masks including those used by doctors, said that the volume of incoming orders has been difficult to fulfill despite the company operating its factory around the clock.
An official at the All Nippon Nonwovens Association said, "We heard that materials for making surgical masks are running short."
Amid the scarcity of the masks for sale, the idea of homemade alternatives has drawn attention on social media.
A woman created a post on her website showing how to make a mask from gauze.
"I heard that people with hay fever or other illnesses are also in trouble to buy surgical masks," she said.
"I want people to know there are alternatives to make surgical masks. It's easy to make even for beginners."
On China's mainland, more than 24,000 people have been infected with the coronavirus, with the death toll rising to 493, according to the country's health authorities.
In Japan, 35 cases of infection have been reported as of Wednesday.