TOKYO: Some 300,000 face masks sent to pregnant women in Japan as part of a government handout have been found to be faulty, media reports said, the latest in a string of complaints about how the government has dealt with the pandemic.
The efforts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government to distribute protective cloth masks in its fight against the coronavirus have been marred by complaints about mould, insects and stains in a number of the masks handed out so far.
Just days after it began supplying every household with two washable, reusable masks at a total cost of US$430 million, complaints emerged of soiled or defective products, many of them from pregnant women.
By Tuesday, the number of defective masks distributed to pregnant women had risen to 300,000 out of 500,000, public broadcaster NHK reported.
The masks are being sent out in order of priority, with pregnant women and care homes for the disabled at the head of the list, though private households in Tokyo are also starting to receive theirs.
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The Health Ministry was not immediately available for comment, but Health Ministry Katsunobu Kato told a Tuesday news conference the safety of all the masks would be verified.
"It's of top priority to guarantee the quality of the masks so pregnant women can use them with relief," he said.
The government asked five companies to manufacture the masks, and had originally said only three - Kowa Co Ltd, Matsuoka Corp and trading house Itochu Corp - were providing some for pregnant women.
Itochu last week said it was recalling some of its undistributed face masks following reports of defects, as did Kowa, which said it would also tighten inspections at its manufacturing plants. Matsuoka Corp was not immediately able to respond to requests for comment
On Monday, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government had verified that an additional company, Yusebio, had also supplied masks which were sent to pregnant women.
According to Japanese media, the company, located in northern Fukushima prefecture, normally imports wood chips for use in biomass energy production and has five employees.
In February, the company imported a large number of masks, originally intending to sell them locally, but was subsequently contacted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry about purchasing them, the company's president was quoted by the Asahi Shimbun daily as saying.
"There is no problem with the quality of our masks," the company president was quoted by NHK as saying. The firm could not immediately be reached for contact.
Asked about the procurement of the masks and how the firms had been chosen, Suga told a news conference that everything had been handled appropriately.
"There was an urgent need for the masks, so the government asked around broadly," he said, without giving further details.
Masks remain a sought-after item in Japan.
Sharp Corp said in a statement on Tuesday that 4.7 million people applied for 40,000 boxes of face masks.
Last week, overwhelming demand crashed the Japanese electronics firm's website soon after the company started taking orders online. It then changed to sell the masks through a lottery to avoid more crashes and said it was ramping up production to meet demand.