Nearby is a plastic bowl, filled with blue dye and a few gloves. Thai officials say migrant laborers had been trying to make the gloves look new again, when Thai health authorities raided the facility in December.
There are many more warehouses just like it still in operation today in Thailand — trying to cash in on the demand for medical-grade nitrile gloves, which exploded with the coronavirus pandemic. And they’re boxing up millions of these sub-standard gloves for export to the United States, and countries around the world amid a global shortage that will take years to ease.
A months-long CNN investigation has found that tens of millions of counterfeit and second-hand nitrile gloves have reached the United States, according to import records and distributors who bought the gloves — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Criminal investigations are underway by the authorities in the US and Thailand.
Experts describe an industry riddled with fraud, with one of them — Douglas Stein — telling CNN that nitrile gloves are the “most dangerous commodity on Earth right now.”
“There’s an enormous amount of bad product coming in,” Stein says, “an endless stream of filthy, second-hand and substandard gloves coming into the US of which federal authorities, it seems, are only now beginning to understand the enormous scale.”
Yet, despite the potential risk to frontline healthcare workers and patients, US authorities have struggled to get a handle on the illicit trade — in part because import regulations for protective medical equipment were temporarily suspended at the height of the pandemic — and remain suspended today.
In February and March this year one US company warned two federal agencies — Customs and Border Protection and the Food and Drug Administration — that it had received shipments filled with substandard and visibly soiled gloves from one company in Thailand.
And yet the Thai company managed to ship tens of millions more gloves in the following months, some arriving as recently as July.
The FDA told CNN it could not comment on individual cases but said it has taken “a number of steps to find and stop those selling unapproved products by leveraging our experience investigating, examining and reviewing medical products, both at the border and within domestic commerce.”
A surge in demand
The gloves, produced almost entirely in south and east Asia, rely on a finite supply of natural rubber, highly-specialized factories and niche manufacturing expertise. Ramping up supply couldn’t happen quickly and production from trusted, established brands was spoken for years in advance.
Governments and hospital systems scrambled to get what they needed — and dozens of shady companies looking to turn a quick…