By Bojan Pancevski 

BERLIN -- German officials said a shipment of face masks destined for Germany was seized at Bangkok airport and diverted to the U.S. in an act of "modern piracy" -- the latest accusation that the Trump administration is throwing its weight around in the global scramble to secure scarce protective equipment needed in the fight against coronavirus infections.

In March, Germany's government accused President Trump of trying to persuade a local biotech firm in an advanced stage of developing a coronavirus vaccine to relocate its research teams to the U.S. and grant the country exclusivity on a future vaccine.

The incidents come amid a global crunch in the market for medical protection equipment, as countries scramble to procure masks and other items that are essential to protect medical staff and others from becoming infected when treating Covid-19 patients.

The Berlin regional government said on Friday 200,000 FFP2 respirators -- the high-quality masks, known in the U.S. under the designation N95, that protect from viral infections -- ordered from a U.S. manufacturer had been "confiscated" in Bangkok and never reached their destination. It said it believed the incident was related to U.S. threats to ban the export of medical masks.

The U.S. Embassy in Berlin declined to comment. The White House didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The statement from Berlin authorities didn't provide any further detail or say when the incident happened. But a Berlin official said the masks were manufactured by U.S. company 3M's factory in China and were part of a total order of 400,000 pieces. The official said U.S. officials had confiscated the shipment while it was in transit in Thailand.

In a short statement, Berlin Interior Minister Andreas Geisel called the incident an act of "modern piracy." Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, a Social Democrat, said "the actions of the U.S. president are...inhumane and unacceptable."

"Even in times of global crisis, methods from the Wild West should not become prevalent," Mr. Geisel said.

A spokesman for the German government, which has its seat in Berlin, declined to comment on the accusations. "America's behavior since the crisis started has been positively rabid when it comes to medical supplies," one federal official said.

3M said it "has no evidence to suggest 3M products have been seized. 3M has no record of any order of respirators from China for the Berlin police. We cannot speculate where this report originated."

This is the second time in just over two weeks that German authorities have accused the Trump administration of foul play in their efforts to stem the pandemic. German cabinet ministers said Washington had tried to get the biotech firm CureVac AG, which is working on a vaccine against the novel virus, to relocate to the U.S.

A U.S. official said at the time that the story was blown out of proportion.

"The U.S. government has spoken with more than 25 companies that claim they can help with a vaccine," the official said. "We will continue to talk to any company that claims to be able to help. And any solution found would be shared with the world."

CureVac dismissed the German accusations in a statement. Its chief executive, who had met Mr. Trump in the White House days before the claims surfaced in Berlin, was replaced without explanation and hasn't responded to attempts to contact him since.

--Alex Leary in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 03, 2020 20:02 ET (00:02 GMT)

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