Indonesian textile factories are making changes to their production line by producing protective gear for medical personnel and a local start-up is producing test kits to support the nation’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, producing medical-grade supplies comes with major challenges.

Textile companies were racing to mass-produce masks and protective coveralls for medical workers, said PT Pan Brothers deputy CEO Anne Patricia Sutanto.

The company agreed to produce 20 million washable masks and 100,000 jumpsuits by next month, as ordered by the government and retailers as demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) skyrockets.

“The workers were initially flabbergasted by our decision. They asked me, ‘But, we are a garment exporting company, how can we produce masks and coveralls?’ but I told them this is a humanitarian emergency and we did it,” she told The Jakarta Post on Thursday. Pan Brothers ordered nine of its factories to produce the equipment.

There is a global shortage of PPE, test kits and ventilators, all of which are crucial in slowing the spread of Covid-19. The Indonesian Medical Association (IDI) announced on March 23 that five doctors had died of the illness, in addition to a nurse who died of Covid-19 on March 12.

As a result of the quick changes in its factories’ production line, the PPE made by Pan Brothers is not officially medical grade as the company does not have a licence to test for biocompatibility.

“There is not enough time for us to obtain medical-grade status as we are in an emergency,” Anne said, giving assurances that their masks and coveralls had the same specifications as medical-grade products.

Indonesia was identifying companies that had the capacity to produce PPE, test kits and ventilators to help the nation’s health workers, who had been treating Covid-19 cases since mid-February with inadequate protection, Minister of Finance Sri Mulyani Indrawati said on Thursday.

“In Indonesia we are taking steps to support companies that produce healthcare equipment. We will list them and see to their needs in increasing their production capacity,” Sri Mulyani told a teleconferenced media briefing after a virtual extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit.

Textile company PT Sri Rejeki Isman (Sritex) had been producing coveralls for medical workers since late January and began to deliver the products in the first week of last month, the company’s spokesperson Joy Citra Dewi said.

“We use a specified waterproof and anti-microbial material that we developed for the PPE,” Joy told the Post in a written statement without disclosing the number of coveralls produced by the company.

Both Sritex and Pan Brothers are facing shortages for medical-grade raw materials, as local producers have been overwhelmed by demands. A limited number of companies can produce medical-grade materials as they require strict standards and certification, Joy said.

“The challenges that are being faced by other companies are the scarcity of materials to produce safe PPE. There is PPE currently circulating in the market that lacks the proper specifications, which could endanger medical personnel,” Joy said.

Lack of capacity

While basic PPE can be quickly produced by textile companies, local industries are still unable to produce more complex medical equipment such as ventilators and hospital beds.

A lack of technological capability in producing complex medical equipment had become a major hurdle for factories looking to shift their production line, Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (Kadin) deputy chairwoman Shinta Kamdani told the Post in a separate interview.

Shinta said factories across Indonesia faced a decline in production capacity by an average of 30 per cent due to disruptions to their supply chains as a result of the coronavirus.

“There are not many industries that are ready to produce medical equipment, especially in this kind of situation. Maybe big corporations have better technology that could be used to produce ventilators or hospital beds, but it’s unattainable for mid-sized companies,” she said.

Carmakers around the world are also shifting gear, producing hospital ventilators and respirators using 3D printing. Ford, General Motors, Ferrari and Nissan, alongside General Electrics and 3M Co, are among the companies that have switched focus.

In Indonesia, PT Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indonesia, a subsidiary of Toyota Indonesia, which manufactures and exports Toyota products, is in talks with the government to produce ventilators.

Meanwhile, Indonesia-based start-up Nusantics is preparing to make 100,000 Covid-19 test kits, in partnership with state pharmaceutical company Biofarma, the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) and the Indonesia International Institute for Life Sciences (i3L).

A prototype will be complete within three weeks, according to the company’s investor East Ventures, which will lead crowdfunding with a target of 10 billion rupiah ($610,000) to produce the test kits and finance a genome sequencing project. The public can join by accessing to donate money or equipment starting on March 30.

“Right now, it is difficult to get tested for the coronavirus as it keeps spreading throughout the nation,” East Ventures cofounder and managing partner Willson Cuaca told the Post. “That is why we want to help the start-up achieve this goal.”

Nusantics, a technology company established last year, focuses on advancements in genomics and microbiome research. Microbiomes are complex ecosystems of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi.