The new Covid-19 wave is putting more pressure on medical oxygen demand supplies in South America, as new virus variants are more infectious and the vaccination efforts progress slowly due to a lack of vaccines in most countries of the region.

The industrial gas industry is coming under severe pressure and public scrutiny, and is making public appeals to governments and citizens to limit contagions.

The industry has worked with the public and private health sectors to increase oxygen availability for the additional intensive care units which were added, as well as facilities for serious cases for patients who also require oxygenation – installing new or additional cryogenic tanks, providing more cylinders and oxygen concentrators. This, in turn, demands the upgrade of distribution equipment and personnel.

Colombia could become critical

The Colombian Chamber of Industrial and Medical Gases issued an alert on 26th April (2021), describing the tremendous pressure that industrial gas companies are facing due to the increase of oxygen demand.

Gas companies are now producing at 105% of their oxygen installed capacity. While in February 2020 the total consumption of oxygen (industrial and medical) was 330 tonnes per day (tpd), the same demand in April 2021 reached 575 tpd – a 74% increase.


Ms. Ingrid Reyes, speaker of the Chamber, said that although the industry was able to supply enough oxygen during previous waves, now its priority is to supply the larger demand of medical oxygen in the Atlantic and Antioquia regions, two of the most populated in the country, where the Covid-19 virus is making a rapid advance. Reyes alerted that if contagions increase at a similar pace in the populous cities of Bogota and Cali, the situation could become critical.

The oxygen producers are working with the Colombian authorities in solutions contemplating the possible importation of oxygen, starting up several oxygen PSA (pressure swing adsorption) plants, establishing protocols for the rational use of oxygen, as well as insisting in the return of empty cylinders and oxygen concentrators as soon as they are no longer required by the patients. Finally, Reyes insists that self-care should be the main strategy to prevent contagions in order to avoid a critical situation.

Argentina on alert

In Argentina, where a second wave of the Covid-19 infection is underway, reaching higher contagions than during the first wave yet mainly concentrated in the city Buenos Aires and the metropolitan area, on 28th April a joint resolution of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Productive Development established that industrial gas companies should supply medical oxygen demand with priority over industrial uses.

Projections of demand indicate that if contagions continue at the present level, oxygen demand could reach between 1,030 tpd and 1,506 tpd, surpassing the total oxygen production capacity estimated to be at 860 tpd.

Additionally, in order to prevent abuses like those which have been seen in other countries, a 90-day price freeze was established for the medical oxygen product and related services.

A few days earlier, a large steel mill located near Rosario, 300km from Buenos Aires, stopped production after its supplier (Linde-Praxair) communicated that there will be no liquid oxygen available for them during May 2021. Air Liquide Argentina issued a press release on 30th April describing its efforts to supply a ’fluctuating demand which is 200% higher’ and reaffirming its commitment to supply medical oxygen demand across the country.

In news that appeared in the local national newspaper Clarin, Linde-Praxair said it was also seeing a 200% increase in oxygen demand. Together with Air Liquide, the combined company Linde-Praxair supplies near 90% of the Argentinean oxygen market, followed distantly by Indura Air Products and several local regional producers.


Problems persist in Peru

In Peru, where gasworld has previously written about the troubles the country has faced with its escalating Covid crisis in 2020, Linde Peru – the combined company formed by Praxair and Linde Gases after their merger and which supplies most of the oxygen in the country – issued a press release in April (16th) describing the critical situation of medical oxygen in the country, and the large efforts made by Linde to increase its production.

Linde´s medical oxygen demand before the start of the pandemic in March 2020 was 48 tpd, and has now reached 250 tpd, which Linde supplies both by starting up idle plants and imports, plus another 20 tpd produced by the copper company, Southern, with Linde´s collaboration.

Linde alerted the Peruvian government early in February 2021 about the critical situation, as described in a previous press release, and now insists that medical oxygen consumption continues to grow. Peru has been receiving, in recent months, around 40 tonnes of liquid oxygen per week from Chile for hospitals in Lima, and also some oxygen from neighboring Ecuador to cover additional demand in the Northern region.

Estimates from the Ministry of Health consider that demand could be around 510 tpd of oxygen, while capacity is approx. 400 tpd, including some PSA plants installed at several hospitals.

Read more: Peru – An oxygen market in focus


Brazilian crisis continues

In Brazil, oxygen demand remains high, as we reported in our article of 22nd March (2021), and White Martins – the leading gas company in the country with more than 50% market share – indicated in a 26th March (2021) press release that it alone supplied 1.1 million m3 of medical (liquid) oxygen on 22nd March, equivalent to about 1,570 tpd – a daily volume 93% higher than in December 2020 and 119% higher than the average daily volume during 2020.

More recently, White Martins announced that as part of its efforts to cope with the high medical oxygen demand, it had imported 14 cryogenic trailers from its sister company in Canada, including one called the ’cryo-queen’ which is capable of storing 80,000m3 of liquid oxygen.

Wider concerns

Problems with the supply of medical oxygen due to the Covid-19 crisis had also been reported in smaller countries like Paraguay and Bolivia. Chile, in spite of the good progress of its vaccination campaign, has also seen a spike in Covd-19 cases and declared a temporary lockdown, with the oxygen demand growing in some regions, but no major oxygen problems have been reported so far.

Uruguay, which last year was barely affected by the virus, is now suffering higher contagions and also declared a partial lockdown as the health system was under pressure.

gasworld's Molly Burgess sits down with Global Managing Editor Rob Cockerill, to ask why a story of medical oxygen supply in Brazil was among his Q1 20201 Editor's Picks.