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S. Korea curbs exports of facial masks amid soaring virus cases


South Korea on Wednesday started to regulate the country's exports of facial masks as demand for sanitary products has been running high here amid the spread of the new coronavirus.

Under the measures, effective until April 30, the government will limit mask exports to a maximum of 10 percent of total output here, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.

While the country's daily production of masks reached 11 million units as of Tuesday, which doubled from two weeks earlier, South Korea still suffers a shortage of the products due to an explosive rise in demand and outbound shipment to other countries.

South Koreans have been forming long lines at local supermarkets to purchase protective masks, which sell out quickly.

Some online vendors have even sharply raised prices while unilaterally canceling previous orders.

As of Thursday morning, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reached 1,146. The country reported its first case from a Chinese woman on Jan. 20.

Two clusters of infections -- at a branch of a religious sect in the southeastern city of Daegu and a hospital in the neighboring county of Cheongdo -- have especially continued to expand.

To cope with soaring demand here, South Korea will also distribute 50 percent of production to state-run retail platforms, including the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation and the Small & Medium Business Distribution Center.

The country will focus on handing out masks to marginalized households and supplying the products to medical staff engaging in quarantine efforts without delay.

In line with efforts to prevent the hoarding of masks, distributors are also obligated to notify authorities if they sell more than 10,000 surgical masks to a single buyer.

"As the public's safety is the top priority now, the new policy is applied to every mask produced here," an official from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said. "We plan to open a special team that will discuss ways to compensate producers for penalties caused by the breach of their contracts."

The latest policy is based on the country's price stabilization act, which allows the government to make an intervention into the market when the supply or distribution system of certain goods is paralyzed due to disasters.

Violators of the new regulation will face a prison sentence of up to two years or a maximum fine of 50 million won ($42,000).

Authorities currently remain vigilant over attempts to smuggle masks out of the country. Earlier this month, local customs authorities scuttled attempts to illegally ship out about 730,000 face masks. (Yonhap)