For over 25 years, Mercator Medical Group is a recognizable producer and distributor in the medical industry. It is based in the Polish capital, and run by Wiesław Żyznowski – the President of the Management Board, together with Piotr Żyznowski. The company’s offerings involve a full range of disposable medical products, mainly gloves (examination, surgical, protective, household, heavy-duty), dressings, disposable apparel, and non-woven surgical drapes. The Group has operations in 70 countries, with a 2% share in the global market.
Inkwood: According to you, how has the ongoing pandemic due to COVID-19 impacted the demand for disposable medical gloves?
Wiesław Żyznowski: The Coronavirus pandemic has significantly disrupted the industry. The demand for disposable medical gloves has increased not only due to the tightening of the sanitary regime in medical facilities, especially for patients with SARS-CoV-2. But, also with the growing awareness of end-users for safety. The global demand for gloves has exceeded the supply, i.e., both the full production capacity of all factories in the world and the full supply capacity of all distributors. We assume that this situation will continue not only in the second half of this year, but also with high probability in 2021.
We are not even in the middle of the increased demand and boom for gloves yet. That will begin when delivery times start to shorten, and prices start to drop. Currently, the waiting time for nitrile gloves in container orders from Asia has increased to 620 days; in July, it was 590 days, compared to 60 days before the pandemic. Currently, production lines are booked for 2022. According to estimates, in 2022, the demand for gloves will reach 500 billion pieces, compared to 300 billion pieces in 2019.
To sum up, we are constantly analyzing the market and observing the epidemiological situation in the world. So far, we are in the epicenter of the pandemic – the demand for our products is very high.
Inkwood: How are the suppliers coping with the sudden spike in demand in 2020 due to the COVID-19? Are they implementing any different tactics to fulfill this demand?
Wiesław Żyznowski: Building a factory, i.e., the entire process from concept to installation, takes about 18 to 24 months. So, if a new factory was not planned a year or two earlier, it is not possible to quickly expand the supply of disposable medical gloves. According to our information, several suppliers have planned to expand their industrial production (and this is happening), but the quantities they provide are still insufficient. Currently, several dozen players on the market are planning to build new production lines. Still, the effects of their activities will not be visible until the fourth quarter of 2021 (these are the implementation of ideas that were conceived in March and April 2020).
Inkwood: Are there any particular type of disposable medical gloves being preferred more over others? If yes, then why is it so?
Wiesław Żyznowski: The greatest demand is for nitrile gloves made of synthetic rubber, which is less allergenic than natural latex. The hyper demand for this category is generated by the United States, one of the largest consumers of disposable medical gloves in the world. It has been increasing since 2011, due to the gradual transition from latex gloves to synthetic gloves. In 2016 the FDA banned the use of powdered latex gloves in the United States and Saudi Arabia. Since 2015 this trend of Western demand for synthetic gloves has also increased significantly in Poland. The main reason for this is the increasing population of people suffering from numerous allergic diseases. Some end-users of gloves are allergic to the natural latex used in some medical gloves. Both the FDA and the European Commission require producers to label their packaging with the materials used to make the gloves. If a glove user is allergic to natural latex, they should choose gloves made of other synthetic materials, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), nitrile, or polyurethane.
The most popular raw material is nitrile, which is synthetic, then natural latex and – more and more popular – vinyl (vinyl is not only synthetic but also the cheapest raw material). Latex gloves are underestimated, despite the fact that as raw material, natural latex is the most flexible and durable. Due to the development of production technology, powder-free latex gloves are either chlorinated (in order to wash out latex protein residues) or have an additional layer. For example, a polymer one, that isolates the skin of the hands from the potential allergen, which may be natural latex.
Inkwood: How has the price fluctuation of raw materials being handled by the manufacturers during this pandemic year?
Wiesław Żyznowski: The consequence of the ongoing pandemic has created noticeable changes in the raw materials market. First of all, they are starting to become more expensive (their prices were falling or were stable only at the time of the Chinese economy’s lockdown, because the country is an industrial giant whose processing activity accounts for a large part of the global demand for raw materials). Natural latex has been going up in price since October (both in the case of farmers and distributors). The price of synthetic latex has increased significantly since August, and is forecasted to fuel further. The demand for NBR is steadily increasing, but its supply is limited. This means that access to this material is limited as well. The supply of nitrile latex is a certain barrier to the production capacity expansion, and those who were less stable in purchasing before may have problems.
We run production without disruptions because our suppliers have not reduced the volume of supplies to our company. We have adequate amounts of this raw material secured, although we do not complain about its excess. It is worth emphasizing that due to the limited supply of synthetic latex, producers have knocked on the door of research for alternatives, which can make disposable medical gloves. In particular, so-called hybrids, understood as mixtures of raw materials, for example, natural and synthetic latex (nitrile) or vinyl and nitrile, are being tested. For many producers, finding such an alternative may be important because the raw material is responsible for about 40% of the total cost of making a disposable glove.
Inkwood: How is the demand for surgical gloves been impacted by delayed non-essential operations due to the pandemic period?
Wiesław Żyznowski: Due to the current epidemic situation, the surgical gloves segment has suffered worldwide. Currently, much fewer surgeries are performed than before the pandemic, as medical facilities are focused primarily on fighting COVID-19, often suspending or canceling planned surgeries. We can feel it in sales. Nevertheless, we are quite stable in this segment – in my opinion, we will not feel any weakening in the long term. At the same time, however, it is because, the surgical gloves segment constitutes a small part of our sales.
Inkwood: How is Thailand coping with the sudden rise in demand for disposable medical gloves, and from which country, in particular, the demand has grown?
Wiesław Żyznowski: Disposable medical gloves are one of Thailand’s leading export products, which in the context of the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, translates into rapid growth in this segment. According to publicly available data, in just the first four months of the pandemic, the value of gloves exported from this country rose to USD 449 million, increasing 16% over the same period in 2019. The biggest beneficiary of the increased demand for gloves is Malaysia, which is the largest producer of medical gloves in the world.
Inkwood: Which international organizations and/or countries have come forward to fill the demand-supply gap which is being experienced by the region?
Wiesław Żyznowski: As the pandemic situation unfolded, many countries have decided to control the export of medical products, significantly. China, Kazakhstan, India, Russia, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic have imposed export bans and/or restrictions on drugs and medical products in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Export bans and/or controls mainly cover the export of medical devices, such as respiratory masks, face masks, gloves, and protective coveralls. However, India has restricted exports of pharmaceutical ingredients and pharmaceuticals, such as paracetamol. While export controls do not necessarily mean that exports are banned, they do require export licenses. As a consequence, transactions can be delayed and potentially rejected or canceled.
Inkwood: How is your company uniquely tackling this surging demand?
Wiesław Żyznowski: We are both a producer and a distributor. It is this business model that makes us unique. Standing on two feet in the medical disposables business, including gloves, is very beneficial for us, and we intend to develop both these areas. While the construction of factories continues, the effects of the development of distribution can be seen even in the short term. We are number one in Poland and Ukraine. We also have a strong position in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We want to be stronger in the West – we have a lot to do here. We plan to develop distribution because we are convinced that even when the pandemic is over, the high demand for personal protective equipment will continue.