APFELSTAEDT, Germany (Reuters) – Countries’ procurement agents are fighting each other in China for access to the protective equipment that must play a key role in stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

He was responding to a spate of reports of consignments of protective masks destined for European countries being bought up by United States officials, sometimes even as aeroplanes stood ready for departure on the tarmac.

“You hear stories of people fighting in the truest sense of the word over these masks in China,” he told reporters on Friday during a visit to a logistics company that is acting for the German government. “That’s not a good development, but it reflects the strong demand.”

Germany’s mix of lockdown measures and aggressive testing for the novel coronavirus has so far been successful in slowing the spread of the disease, with each patient only infecting one other on average in recent days.

But that development, while encouraging, has focused more attention on the supplies of protective equipment that will become necessary if the disruptive curfews in force are ever to be lifted.

“This crisis is not a sprint but a long-distance run,” Spahn said, warning the public not to expect a sudden or complete relaxation of lockdown and quarantine rules.

He said Europe was in a strong position to manufacture much of the protective equipment it needed, even in the face of international competition for the output of the largest suppliers in China.

“We make masks only on a small scale here in Germany, but we build the machines that are used to make the masks,” he said.

“And much of the animal fleeces that are used to make the masks are produced in Europe and Germany. So if the machines and the fleeces are from Germany and Europe, we should be able to have production in Europe again.”

(Reporting by Reuters TV, Writing by Thomas Escritt; editing by Thomas Seythal and Edward Taylor)