Chinese e-commerce sites freeze prices for masks amidst Wuhan virus outbreak

The virus has now affected more than 440 people in China alone.
PHOTO: Reuters

Chinese e-commerce platforms have vowed to prevent price spikes for medical items such as face masks and disinfectant and offer non-stop delivery services during Lunar New Year, after the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak sparked panic buying of health products.

E-retailers including Taobao, Suning and JD.com made pledges late on Tuesday as rumours spread that supplies of in-demand items such as surgical masks were running low at most drug stores in some of the country's biggest cities. Public anxiety has also been fanned by fears that delivery services may dry up during the upcoming holiday.

"Right now the supply of masks is sufficient," said Taobao in a Weibo post that received nearly 400,000 likes. "We have notified all mask sellers on Taobao and Tmall that there will be no price spikes."

At the same time, Alibaba said it would subsidise mask-related items and ensure consumers receive authentic products "at reasonable prices". Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

Alibaba Health will offer non-stop delivery services during the Lunar New Year holiday, according to the post.

Consumers from Wuhan, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu can search nearby pharmacies where masks and disinfectant are available via the Taobao app and choose a delivery service.

Suning announced similar price freezes and extended delivery services in a statement, adding that health products including masks, disinfectant, hand wash, air purifiers and UV sterilising lamps were in "sufficient supply" via its e-commerce app and physical stores.

Consumers from 51 Chinese cities can make purchases online and enjoy a one-hour speedy delivery service within a range of 3 kilometres from its stores, according to Suning.

The moves by e-commerce operators come as the Wuhan coronavirus continues to spread - it has now killed nine people and infected 440 others across the country, according to official data as of Wednesday morning.

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The outbreak comes just days before hundreds of millions of Chinese travellers head home for annual family reunions during the Lunar New Year holiday, marking the "world's largest human migration".

Travel booking platforms including Trip.com and Fliggy announced earlier this week that they were offering free cancellations on bookings bound for Wuhan, as fears rose that the hot travel season could risk large-scale transmission of the virus.

Other booking sites such as Meituan Dianping and Qunar.com also said full refund services will be extended to all users who have been placed under quarantine or diagnosed with the virus.

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.