By Alexandra Ulmer and Zeba Siddiqui
MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - As the coronavirus spread across Asia in February, Indian manufacturers of personal protective equipment contacted the health ministry urging the government to stock up.
They got no response, according to Sanjeev Relhan and Rajiv Nath, the heads of two health-sector manufacturing associations.
They and other manufacturers now say such poor communication led to the squandering of precious time in the race to protect health workers fighting the coronavirus.
The health ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
India has reported 724 cases of the coronavirus including 17 deaths and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has locked down the entire country for three weeks in the world's most ambitious bid to control the epidemic.
Rehlan said they met textile ministry officials on March 16, only to learn equipment specifications had already been set.
Then, on Saturday, Nath said he was informed by a health ministry official that a tender for the equipment had been issued 16 days earlier, but many manufacturers had not been aware of it.
"We sent daily emails from March 13 until March 21. If the tender was available why didn't they share it?" said Relhan, chair of the Preventive Wear Manufacturer Association of India.
The government banned exports of personal protective equipment on Jan. 31 to avoid shortages but other manufacturers of the equipment rued what they saw as a waste of time in getting ready to face the virus.
"If we were preparing ourselves from February everyone would have been ready," said Smita Shah, managing director of Mediklin Healthcare.
For instance, specifications India mandated included seam-tapping, which requires importing machines - a near-impossible feat now that India is under lockdown and global supply chains are frayed.
"We could have imported some machines, or come up with some solution," said Relhan.
Now, medical staff lack sufficient masks, gloves and coveralls, according to the United Resident & Doctor's Association India, which complained about the shortages in a letter to the prime minister on Wednesday.
"Asking a health professional to work without these essentials is like asking a soldier to ... fight without a gun," the association said.
The group's president, Dr Manu Gautam, said he did not have shortage estimates, but added that at least eight health workers had been infected with the coronavirus, half of them at government health centers.
Now the lockdown is contributing to shortages as workers struggle to get to their plants, slowing production, manufacturers said.
The Ministry of Textiles acknowledged shortages in a March 18 meeting, according to minutes seen by Reuters.
India needed some 725,000 coveralls and 6 million N-95 masks but "the rate of supply is not able to meet the rising demand", the ministry said in the document.
The Textile Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
The government has centralized acquisition of equipment through state-owned healthcare product manufacturer HLL Lifecare.
A source at HLL Lifecare, who said it was only the health ministry that was authorized to brief media, said the company was working around the clock to provide equipment but the lockdown was slowing transport.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)