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As governments worldwide race to replenish dwindling medical supplies to fight the coronavirus, French officials have accused the U.S. of buying an order of Chinese-made masks bound for France – claims the U.S. has since rejected as “completely false.”
“The United States government has not purchased any masks intended for delivery from China to France," a senior administration official told Fox News Thursday. "Reports to the contrary are completely false.”
Several regional French officials claimed this week that the U.S. paid Chinese distributors at least double, in cash, to take the essential medical provisions from France.
“This morning on the tarmac [at the airport], in China, a French order was bought by the Americans in cash, and the plane which was to come to France went directly to the United States,” Renaud Muselier, president of the Paca region and of the Association of Regions of France, told RT France Thursday.
RT France is the French edition of Russian international news channel RT.
An Antonov 124 is pictured on the tarmac of Vatry, eastern France, for the first delivery of masks coming from China on Monday. (Thomas Paudeleux/ECPAD via AP)
While Muselier wouldn’t comment further on his claim to the French daily, Liberation, the paper said he later told France-based news agency AFP that another regional president claimed the U.S. paid three times the price in cash for the masks. Muselier wouldn’t name the region or number of masks ordered.
Other regional officials spoke to French media outlets and backed up the claims that countries are pitted against each other in acquiring medical gear.
"Masks are becoming scarce, and Americans buy them wherever they find them, no matter the price,” a top regional official, who claims to be a victim of the practice, told the paper on condition of anonymity. “They pay double and cash, even before they see the goods.”
Jean Rottner, president of the Grand Est region, an area devastated by the outbreak, told French radio station RTL: “It is true that, on the tarmac, the Americans arrive, take out the cash, and pay three or four times more for the orders we have made, so we really have to fight.”
Medical staff evacuate patients infected with the COVID-19 virus aboard a high-speed train at the Gare d’Austerlitz train station Wednesday in Paris. (Thomas Samson, Pool via AP)
Both Muselier and Rottner told local news outlets that their regions were not among those affected and that their masks either had been delivered or were on the way.
The French officials said the competition for protective gear caused delays in shipments to some of the worst-affected areas.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the dependence many countries have on Chinese imports. However, many countries are learning that the much-needed supplies purchased from Beijing are substandard in quality.
The Netherlands was forced to recall 600,000 faulty masks over the weekend, while Spain returned thousands of shoddy test kits last week. Turkey, Georgia and the Czech Republic are among other countries raising questions over the quality of the supplies Beijing is selling to the world.
Both the U.S. and France have ramped up domestic manufacturing of medical equipment in recent days to meet the required demand for medical workers fighting on the front lines of the outbreak as stockpiles run low.
President Trump acknowledged that the federal stockpile has almost run out of the personal protective equipment doctors and nurses need to treat patients.
“We're going to have a couple of weeks, starting pretty much now, but especially a few days from now, that are going to be horrific," he said Wednesday at a White House coronavirus task force briefing.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged Tuesday to make France “completely independent” in producing protective masks and other medical supplies by year's end and vowed to learn lessons from the outbreak as criticism grows over the country’s own equipment shortages.
Macron, left, wearing protective suit and a face mask, visits the Kolmi-Hopen protective face masks factory in Saint-Barthelemy-d’Anjou near Angers, central France, on Tuesday. (Loic Venance, Pool via AP)
The number of cases and deaths caused by the virulent disease have continued to surge in both countries.
The virus has sickened at least 57,763 people in France, killing 4,032 as of Thursday, while the U.S. death toll climbed to 5,137 amid 216,722 cases – the most in the world.
Fox News' Rich Edson and Barnini Chakraborty contributed to this report.