By Cecile Mantovani

GENEVA (Reuters) – A Boeing 747 landed in Geneva on Monday with 92 tonnes of protective medical equipment including masks made in China for distribution to 13 Swiss hospitals and pharmaceutical associations as they battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The flight contained 2.5 million surgical masks, 10 million gloves as well as goggles and thermometers worth more than 3 million Swiss francs ($3.1 million), and made by Sinopharm Group Co Ltd.

Another delivery arrived in Zurich on Sunday evening on a chartered Swiss airline flight from Shanghai carrying protective gowns for dozens of health care facilities. Further flights with additional equipment are planned.

Christophe Weber, president of the Swiss-Chinese Chamber of Commerce for western Switzerland, who helped organise the Geneva delivery, said that the order was placed in response to appeals from doctors and pharmacists amid serious supply shortages.

“I always considered that we, Switzerland, had the quotas necessary for protective medical equipment and it was unfortunately not the case and it became urgent to take action,” he said at Geneva’s Cointrin airport.

About a dozen police surrounded the cargo. The equipment was inspected inside an airport warehouse and will be moved to another secret location for redistribution, with police escorts, later on Monday.

Weber said the government knew about the delivery and had approved of it.

“The competition is extremely lively with the Americans now joining in the bidding and we know about their firepower,” said Vincent Subilia, director general of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, who was also involved with the shipment, referring to masks as “blue gold”.

A German official last week said that an order of 200,000 masks bound for Germany had been “confiscated” in Bangkok and diverted to the United States, calling it an “act of modern piracy”. The United States had no knowledge of the shipment, a spokesman said.

Switzerland reported 21,652 positive COVID-19 cases on Monday and 584 deaths, with the rate of new confirmed increases slowing.

It has mobilised the army to help back up hospitals. Medical aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres is helping in the University Hospital of Geneva, which is one of the facilities due to receive equipment.

It was not immediately clear if the additional supplies would fill the gap in Switzerland’s supplies.

Daniel Koch, the federal government’s point man for battling the epidemic, said on Swiss television RTS on Sunday: “There are stocks for hospitals, for professionals, for retirement homes, and the distribution system is working.”

($1 = 0.9790 Swiss francs)

(additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields in Zurich; writing by Emma Farge; editing by Nick Macfie)