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UPDATE 2-Pandemic oxygen demand lifts Air Liquide's Q1 sales

(Adds detail from analysts’ call, background)

April 23 (Reuters) - French industrial gas company Air Liquide posted higher-than-expected first-quarter sales on Friday, driven by strong demand for medical oxygen during the coronavirus pandemic and a strong rebound in China.

The company, which supplies gases such as oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen to factories and hospitals, saw gas and services sales in China jump nearly 13% on a comparable basis from the year earlier period, driven by industrial demand.

Healthcare revenues rose 10%, boosted by exceptionally high sales of medical oxygen, essential for critically ill COVID-19 patients.

In a call with analysts, Executive Vice President Francois Jackow said the group had quadrupled the amount of medical oxygen it was supplying to India, where cases are exceeding 330,000 a day and overwhelming the country’s health system.

“To give an order of magnitude for the whole country, there is probably close to 800 tonnes per day of medical oxygen demand,” he said. “What we see today and for the past few weeks is an increase by ten-fold.”

Jackow said Air Liquide had switched nearly all its liquid oxygen production to healthcare in the country.

Several Indian hospitals said they had almost exhausted their oxygen supplies on Thursday, as a dire shortage caused states to closely guard their supplies and even post armed police at production plants.

Demand for medical gas also increased in Latin America, notably in Brazil, where Jackow reported “unfortunately, very, very high growth”.

Air Liquide expects to secure antitrust approval for its purchase of the world’s biggest oxygen production site in Secunda, South Africa, from chemicals firm Sasol by the end of June.

The group confirmed its 2021 growth targets, on the back of a 3.8% rise in comparable first-quarter sales to 5.33 billion euros ($6.41 billion), topping analysts’ 5.25 billion forecast. (Reporting by Kate Entringer and Sarah Morland in Gdansk; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

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