With Epidemic, Face Masks Are Suddenly in Demand

By Meg Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 6:29 PM

Think the swine flu epidemic took you by surprise? Imagine the plight of one medical supplier who markets face masks through Amazon.com.

If consumers had searched for medical masks on Amazon yesterday, they would have found a case of 300 face masks manufactured by Mölnlycke Healthcare for $27.45. What a deal: the same product usually sells for more than $60 on specialty Web sites.

An order placed yesterday morning for that price was canceled by Amazon with a note that the face masks were "out of stock." Today, the seller re-listed the same product for $74.54.

Is this an example of profiteering in the midst of an epidemic, or just a glitch that only came to light because face masks are suddenly in demand?

A spokesperson for Vitality Medical, the Salt Lake City-based company that listed the face masks on Amazon, says they can't be bought at any price. "We've been sold out for the past two days," said Ruki Belagam, marketing manager for the company.

Belagam said $27.45 was "a complete error" that reflects the price for just one box of 50 masks, not a case of 300. The company only noticed the error after an order had been placed for them yesterday morning. "It wasn't even on our radar because we've never sold them as a case" on Amazon before.

Belagam said that the company has reset the stock on their Amazon pages to zero, and that the sales pages will soon reflect the change. For now, the anticipated swine flu epidemic won't be boosting Vitality Medical's sales of face masks. "We can't get any right now," she said.

Perhaps it was all for the best. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says that the effectiveness of face masks is not known, and recommends people wash their hands frequently and avoid crowded areas to best protect themselves from the flu.

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