Italy probes “insane” prices for coronavirus masks, sanitizers

A couple wearing protective masks look at a phone next to the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

MILAN (Reuters) – Italian authorities have begun an investigation into rocketing online prices for hygienic masks and sanitizing gels following the coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy, two senior magistrates said on Tuesday.

Italy has seen the biggest outbreak of the disease in Europe, with more than 260 cases and seven deaths reported, most in the prosperous north of the country.

“We have decided to open an investigation after media reports of the insane prices fetched up by these products (masks and gels) on online sales websites in the last two days,” Milan deputy chief prosecutor Tiziana Siciliano told Reuters.

As the disease has spread, many pharmacists say they have run out of hygienic masks and hand sanitizers, and many people have resorted to online sites where prices have shot up.

“The price of masks online has risen from one cent to 10 euros each and a one-liter bottle of disinfectant that last week was on sale for 7 euros, was up to 39 euros yesterday,” Siciliano said.

Sales of hand sanitizer gels in Italy rose to 900,000 packs in the first six weeks of 2020, a nine-fold rise over the previous year and are expected to reach 1 million by the end of February, research institute Nielsen said on Tuesday.

“Sales of hygienic hand gels have gone through the roof. The shelves of big retailers (hypermarkets, supermarkets, cash and carry, specialist pharmacists and discounters) have been cleared out,” Nielsen said.

As the emergency has spread, police have also issued warnings that criminals posing as health inspectors have been using false identity papers to try to gain access to people’s houses to steal money or other valuables.

($1 = 0.9227 euros)

(Reporting by Emilio Parodi; editing by James Mackenzie and Mark Heinrich)

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