One of Tang Zhi's jobs is to count from 1 to 100 loudly and slowly, a monotonous but critical procedure to test the quality of a surgical mask.
Walking into a test room and putting on a hanging N95 mask that is connected to a sampling tube, the quality inspector stands quietly, breathing normally at first, then deeply, before turning his head left and right, and up and down. Finally, Tang counts the numbers out loud and returns to his normal breath.
Tang performed the procedures carefully and allowed the computer program enough time to collect data that are used to decide whether a mask meets certain test requirements.
As an inspector at Guangdong Medical Devices Quality Surveillance and Test Institute, Tang has been testing the quality of surgical face masks for more than two months, which have been in high demand amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
"February was the busiest when I needed to test at least four kinds of masks a day. Every day, I worked until 9 p.m.," Tang said.
Tang's employer is one of the major test agencies in China.
"In the field of medical masks, China adopts standards similar to or even more stringent than those of developed countries. Certified Chinese companies are thus qualified to provide high-quality medical products to the world," said Huang Minju, an official with the institute.
To ensure the global supply of medical products and help other countries and regions combat the virus, China has tightened quality control over companies seeking to expand production.
According to China's Ministry of Commerce, investigations will be carried out into any cases with potential quality issues, and the ministry vowed zero tolerance on such issues.
The ministry, together with the General Administration of Customs and the National Medical Products Administration, announced on March 31 that starting from April 1, exported medical supplies must obtain relevant qualifications and meet the quality standards of the importing country or region. Such a move will help better ensure the safety and reliability of exported medical supplies, market analysts said.
PRODUCTION EXPANSION UNDER HIGH STANDARDS
Zhou Yuehua is the general manager of Guangzhou Fuzelong Hygiene Material Co., Ltd, a company with export qualification and license issued by Chinese regulatory authorities. The company has close to 30 years of experience in producing surgical masks, but Zhou said COVID-19 had created an unprecedented demand for masks.
To ensure supply, the company resumed production on Jan. 25, the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar, with the number of its employees increasing from 18 at the beginning to more than 200 now, and its production capacity growing from 100,000 a day to 700,000 daily.
Like Zhou's firm, mask manufacturers across China have been working around the clock to expand production since the outbreak of COVID-19. China's daily output of face masks reached 116 million units as of Feb. 29, 12 times the figure reported on Feb. 1, as production expansion moves into top gear, said the National Development and Reform Commission.
Rising with the speed of production is the workload of China's quality inspection departments.
A majority of medical materials such as masks and protective clothing produced in southern China are sent to laboratories of Guangdong Medical Devices Quality Surveillance and Test Institute, where Huang Minju and her colleagues carefully tested and checked them one by one to make sure they meet national standards.
In China, medical masks are classified into three categories -- medical protective masks, surgical masks and ordinary medical masks -- offering different levels of protection and subject to different standards, Huang said.
"Substandard products will be returned," she said. Strict inspection helps guarantee the quality of medical supplies on sale, as only up-to-standard ones can keep doctors and nurses safe. Ramped up production and quality inspection have played an important role in China's rapid control of the pandemic.
No one has contracted the virus among the over 40,000 medical workers who were sent to aid Hubei from across China, Ding Xiangyang, deputy secretary-general of the State Council, told a press conference on March 6.
"Many of the medical supplies arrived at Hubei only after we tested them, including the masks. Facts have proved that their quality is reliable, and they've protected our doctors and nurses," Huang said.
CALL FOR INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION
While enterprises and institutes are racing to fulfill overseas demand for medical products, industry observers said global cooperation is needed to ensure the quality.
Pressured by the need to address the epidemic, many countries have relaxed entry standards for medical supplies, so many non-professional players are taking the chance, which may hurt regular market practices, said Steven Du, managing director of SGS China, a leading inspection company.
Exporters need to make sure no substandard products are shipped, and importers also need to do their job to step up supervision, tracking and inspection, observers said.
Responding to reports saying some exported masks from China are of low quality, Huang said that specific standards need to be referred to before they can declare certain masks are substandard.
The standard system for medical protective products is extremely complex and varies in different countries and regions. It is quite irresponsible to hype up the so-called quality issue of Chinese products before getting facts straight, she said.
"In China, a qualified mask has to pass tightness tests of 10 people with different face shapes," Huang added. "However, the face shapes of Asians and Westerners vary. Products that meet Chinese standards may not fit people in the west, but this does not mean that the Chinese-made face masks are substandard."
China attaches great importance to export quality control and has rolled out a raft of measures to ensure the quality of its medical supplies exports. But, China should not be alone, as maintaining the order of the global market of medical supplies requires close cooperation from around the world, Huang said.