US official denies claim that Americans buying up France's masks

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Washington (AFP)

A senior US official on Thursday rejected allegations from French politicians that Americans have been snapping up Chinese masks previously ordered by France during the coronavirus crisis, calling the stories "completely false."

The leader of the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, accused unidentified Americans of swooping in with cash at the last minute to secure shipments already promised to French buyers.

"We lost an order to the Americans who outbid us on a shipment that we had lined up," said Valerie Pecresse, the chief of France's most populous region.

Pecresse claimed that while France pays on delivery for such supplies -- crucial in the global fight against the pandemic -- "Americans pay cash" without bothering to see the goods.

They "are just looking to do business on the back of the whole world's distress," she told LCI television.

A similar accusation was made by Jean Rottner, the leader of the Grand Est region in northeastern France on Wednesday, although he did not explain where he got his information from or identify the people supposedly involved.

"There on the runway, the Americans take out cash and they pay three or four times more for the orders that we had made," Rottner told RTL radio.

In Washington, a senior administration official told AFP "the United States government has not purchased any masks intended for delivery from China to France."

"Reports to the contrary are completely false," said the official, asking not to be named.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday asked officials to look into similar claims that masks were being diverted from his country, calling such reports "concerning."

"We need to make sure that equipment that is destined for Canada gets to and stays in Canada, and I've asked ministers to follow up on these particular reports," he told a press conference.

Ottawa has recognized that its stockpiles of protective medical equipment are not enough to meet demand, as it looks to care for a surge of infected patients and slow the spread of the virus.

Canada has earmarked Can$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) to buy medical equipment while asking local companies to pivot assembly lines to make masks, medical scrubs and ventilators.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said more than 12 million masks were received from abroad, donated locally or released from government stockpiles this week.

"We understand that the needs in the US are very extensive, but it's the same in Canada, so we have to work together to ensure that we can control the spread of this virus," Trudeau concluded.