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Anneliese Bischof was on a business trip in Thailand in the second week of January when conversations with Chinese colleagues about a new virus spreading across the region made her realize a major outbreak might be occurring. For Bischof, the business director of disinfection at German chemicals company Lanxess AG, this was initially no cause for alarm. After all, she and her team had seen spikes in viral infections before, like the African swine fever that swept across the Asia-Pacific region last year, driving up demand for the company’s Virkon industrial-strength disinfectant.
It was only when Bischof returned to Germany that she realized this time was different. Back home in Cologne, the phones in her department started ringing off the hook. The inquiries were from nations that had never previously been on the Lanxess corporate map. “We had an off-the-charts number of calls coming in,” says Bischof, who works at the company’s Material Protection unit, which took over the Virkon brand of disinfectants a few years ago with the $230 million purchase of a biocide business from Delaware-based Chemours Co. “Places like Trinidad and Tobago, all kinds of small countries that for the majority of our business wouldn’t have been on our radar. That’s when we really started noticing the bomb dropping.”
Virkon, a powder dissolved in water and then sprayed on surfaces, kills viruses quickly, often in minutes. That sets it apart from other agents that may take a full hour to eliminate them, Bischof says. “You wouldn’t want to soak or spray a desk and let it sit for 60 minutes if you want to disinfect it.”
The German company isn’t alone in having to scramble to meet demand for products that have become hot sellers in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Even before the spread of Covid-19 outside of China accelerated, American shoppers were stocking up on items such as medical masks, hand sanitizers, and thermometers—in the week through Jan. 25, sales of masks were up 428% from the same period last year, according to Nielsen data. And companies such as Gojo Industries Inc., which sells Purell hand sanitizer, kicked into high gear after demand for disinfectant hand gels spiked 1,400% from December to January, according to Adobe Analytics.
Manufacturers say the current stockpiling is more frenzied than that which occurs before a natural disaster. “I’m from Florida, so when it’s hurricane season you see people with the same kind of behavior or pretty similar,” says Rick McLeod, vice president of product supply for Procter & Gamble Co.’s family care unit—home of the coveted Charmin and Bounty brands. “What’s different here is that it’s not as concentrated as you would see in a hurricane response—it’s obviously more widespread.”
Indeed, retailers such as Target, Kroger, and Tesco in the U.K. are limiting certain purchases. Costco Wholesale Corp. is struggling to keep items in stock, Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti told analysts, saying the buying frenzy has been “a little bit crazy.” In France, shoppers snapped up pasta, rice, ready-cooked meals, and toilet paper, says Michel-Édouard Leclerc, chairman of supermarket chain E.Leclerc. “Everyone rushed like they had lived through a war, which is incredible, because three-quarters of the people who came to stock up have never known war.”
With demand soaring, Lanxess began air-freighting Virkon to China instead of shipping it—getting it to customers within a week, rather than 30 to 45 days. Lanxess also installed a second shift, doubled capacity at the factory making Virkon in Sudbury, England, and is leaning on other European production sites. Bischof predicts sales will remain high for the foreseeable future. “Demand is here to stay at least for this year, if not going forward,” she says. “The topic of disinfection is present in people’s minds now.” —With Gerald Porter Jr. and Thomas Buckley
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