The biggest talking point so far in 2020 is undoubtedly the outbreak of coronavirus, or Covid-19 to give its technical name. At the time of writing, the hard-to-detect virus continues to engulf China and the wider Asia region, but is also fanning out across the globe with the number of fatalities worldwide now totalling more than 3,000.
More than 90% of these deaths have occurred in Hubei province, China where the virus initiated in the city of Wuhan. There have, however, been deaths in 10 other countries around the world and the virus continues to spread, with Andorra, Armenia, Iceland, Indonesia and Portugal this week the latest countries to confirm their first cases.
Some countries are evidently hit harder than others for various factors linked to the inherent nature of both globalisation and travel today and of the virus itself, as well as perhaps the different levels of containment and prevention that countries have chosen to impose.
As of today, Monday 2nd March, South Korea has reported more than 475 new cases to take its total number of infected to more than 4,000 and four more deaths that take its total to 26. In Italy, currently the hardest hit nation outside of Asia, the country’s Civil Protection Authority reported that confirmed coronavirus cases had risen to 1,694 as of 1st March, up from 1,128 confirmed cases the say prior. As many as 34 people have died in the country as a result. In contrast, in the UK there have so far been just 36 cases and no deaths, with almost 12,000 people tested to date.
In China, where this story began, the hope over the course of the last week was that the peak spread of Covid-19 may have already been seen, with a sustained period of decline in new cases day-by-day – but at the time of writing, this trend has been shattered with the news that the number of confirmed cases in Hubei province has increased for the second consecutive day. China has today reported 202 new cases, with 196 of these from Hubei and all 42 deaths disclosed today also originating from the province, the epicentre of the virus. There are now more than 80,000 confirmed cases across the People’s Republic.
These are just some of the examples of the outbreak. Globally, over 86,000 people have been infected by Covid-19, with cases spanning more than 50 countries and counting.
This is prompting varying degrees of action, region by region; the European Union (EU) has this morning raised its coronavirus risk level from ‘moderate’ to ‘high’ for example. Some countries have locked down entire cities and exercised maximum caution, others have taken a more liberal and arguably (economically) pragmatic approach.
The universal impact is one of caution and apprehension, from the staging of public gatherings in excess of 5,000 people to the suspension or reduction of some popular flight paths.
The inherent problem with Covid-19 is that often, individuals do not know if they have become part of the infected.
There is essentially an ever-evolving population of global travellers – whether for pleasure or professional purposes – that are moving around the world and freely spreading the virus, completely unknown and intended.
On the one hand, these breeds mass caution and borderline panic at the unintended consequences of such movement. On the other, business, economies and our day-to-day lives cannot grind to a halt in the face of a virus that, to date, has both a relatively low fatality rate per infection cases and largely mild symptoms. Younger and otherwise fit and healthy individuals tend only to report the milder symptoms of Covid-19 and return to their regular activities after a two-week period of isolation and/or treatment.
Nonetheless, Covid-19 was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 30th January, and continues to break new ground in its penetration of countries day by day. Containment and prevention of a pandemic is very much the order of the day.
This has led to events being cancelled across industries, many European flights slashed in their frequency, as well as popular museums, monuments and experiences being closed to the public; the Louvre museum in Paris and the La Scala opera house in Milan were both subject to high-profile closure over the weekend. There are also estimates that Thailand’s tourism sector could be hit by six million fewer tourists this year, for example.
Again, these are just a handful of examples that illustrate the impact of Covid-19 on the world at large, while the last week of February saw headline-grabbing falls in stock markets across various countries and rumours of a global recession continue to proliferate as the effects of the virus continue to ripple throughout a number of economies.
Meanwhile, news of an environmental silver lining to this particular cloud emerged over the last few days, with satellite images appearing to show a dramatic decline in pollution levels over China, attributed at least in part to the lockdowns in place across the country and its economic slowdown as a result.
Industrial gas impact
The industrial gases industry in the region has naturally been on the frontline of efforts to fight the spread of the virus and treat those with it, having been at the forefront of medical gas and equipment supply in China.
This was affirmed by Linde plc Executive Board Member Sanjiv Lamba, who noted in a LinkedIn post in mid-February that, “Our team in China is at the frontline of combating the #COVID19 outbreak, shouldering the critical responsibility of ensuring uninterrupted supply of medical oxygen to hundreds of hospitals across China, even as they ensure we support all our other customers who continue to operate through this period.”
“I am both proud of and humbled by our #LindeChina team and their display of unity, resilience and fortitude in this difficult time. Despite the impact of the outbreak on their own personal lives, they have come together as a team and persevered in keeping their communities and each other safe. All of us in the #OneLinde family stands firmly with our China team in this fight.”
This was a message reinforced by AIT Events, organisers of the annual IG China trade show for the gases industry, on 19th February. The organisation revealed that various Chinese industrial gases companies are providing medical oxygen to hospitals across the country as it continues to fight Coronavirus.
Since the outbreak in January, Wuhan Iron and Steel Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of Baowu, China, had provided more than 1,200 cubic meters of liquid medical oxygen (equivalent to one million cubic meters of gaseous medical oxygen) to more than 20 hospitals, as of 19th February, accounting for more than half of the medical oxygen consumption in Wuhan.
Another example is Sichuan Ebian Rongcheng Gas Co., Ltd. produces more than 300 tonnes of medical oxygen every day, which is transported to the front line of epidemic prevention inside and outside the province. Since 22nd January, around 2,700 tonnes of liquid oxygen have been transported, with all efforts made to ensure the production during the Spring Festival. Likewise, Beijing Praxair Gases Co., Ltd. has continuously provided medical oxygen to more than 20 large hospitals and distributed 50 to 80 tonnes of medical liquid oxygen, as well as 300 to 500 bottles of medical oxygen, to tankers in major hospitals every day.
The examples are numerous and all equally impressive (see the above link for the full story), once more highlighting the inescapable role that the industrial gases industry plays in almost every walk of life and industry.
We’ve also seen the news that the Air Products Foundation has awarded a $100,000 grant, approximately RMB 700,000, to assist with Covid-19 recovery efforts in China, building on an earlier donation of $70,000 from Air Products China to the Red Cross in China to support the most urgent medical care needs. The industrial gas giant has also continued to deliver the required medical liquid oxygen and helium to hospitals in the Hubei province and across China.
But for all of the stories of our industry’s role in the Covid-19 recovery efforts, what of the impact of the virus on our business?
Phil Kornbluth, President of Kornbluth Helium Consulting, was among the first to project any impact on the industry and the global helium markets in particular, writing in early February that the possible effects of this coronavirus provide a timely reminder of the vulnerability of the helium supply chain.
The announcement that China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) had declared force majeure due to the impact of coronavirus on its demand for LNG provided a reminder that helium markets are also likely to feel at least a temporary impact from the coronavirus pandemic, he explained.
Helium markets may be impacted in two ways. As helium is produced as a by-product of LNG production at five plants located in Qatar, Algeria and Australia, any curtailment of production at the LNG plants that also produce helium would also reduce helium production. Of the LNG plants that produce helium, the plants in Ras Laffan in Qatar are by far the most significant to helium supply, with approximately 30% of the world’s helium produced in Qatar. Qatar is known to be one of China’s long-term suppliers of LNG.
While some impact on Qatar’s LNG and helium production seems likely, Kornbluth Helium Consulting expects the impact on Qatari production to be fairly minor, based on China’s relatively modest share of Qatari LNG production.
On the subject of LNG, however, gasworld understands that the Covid-19 outbreak could cut China’s LNG demand by 2.9 million tonnes (4.2%) in 2020, with February imports alone expected to have fallen 28% versus the prior year. That was according to ICIS, the independent commodity intelligence service, which noted in mid-February that Asian spot LNG prices had hit a record low on the virus’ impact and broader over-supply.
Total China LNG demand for 2020 is now forecast to reach 65.5 million tonnes, it said, with 2021 imports rising to 71.8 million tonnes.
Back to helium, and the more significant impact of Covid-19 is likely to be a temporary reduction in China’s demand for helium. The Chinese market is believed to represent at least 12% of global demand for helium and a significant curtailment of industrial activity due to coronavirus could reduce global demand for helium by as much as 2-3%, Kornbluth explained.
While this would not be enough to end the global helium shortage, softer demand in China would bring modest, temporary relief to helium markets, at a time when they continue to struggle to cope with Helium Shortage 3.0.
Feeling on the ground
Uncertainty over the impact of Covid-19 has also been relayed to gasworld by many of its correspondents in the Asia region, namely in Hong Kong, Singapore and China itself.
Various trade shows and events are also known to be either affected by the situation and its steady spread, or assessing their position on the matter on a daily basis. When gasworld was on the ground at the 16th International Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Expo in Tokyo, Japan last week (26th – 28th February) for example, it was announced that participation in the event was down around 30% due to Covid-19; unofficial rumours were abound that this figure was more like 50%.
There is clearly a level of caution around events or gatherings in certain regions, most notably in the Asia region. This was even the case at an investment signing ceremony in China last week. Air Products noted that in a signing ceremony held for its agreement with the local government of Zhangjiang Administrative Bureau of Shanghai FTZ, an innovative approach was adopted to conduct signings via online and offline channels at different locations to protect the safety and health of attending representatives from the governments, companies and media.
As with any such virus and its widespread transmission, the likelihood is that this situation will still undergo much evolution over the coming days, weeks and months.
In tracing its origins, a pneumonia of unknown cause was detected in Wuhan (China) and first reported to the WHO Country Office in China on 31st December 2019. By 30th January, the outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and by 11th February, it was named Covid-19 by the WHO. In looking ahead to its continued impact, the situation is fluid and no-one appears to know yet whether this will become a full-scale pandemic or how deep the impact of that could be.
gasworld will continue to report on the situation as it progresses and the information concerning its impact on the gases industry is known.
Coronavirus – WHO position
According to a statement of 29th February (2020) by the WHO, the official position on Covid-19 is:
‘WHO continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.
In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions. Furthermore, restrictions may interrupt needed aid and technical support, may disrupt businesses, and may have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries…’
The full position page from the WHO can be found at: