Texas firm's safety gear flies off shelves on coronavirus fears

AUSTIN, Texas, March 5 (Reuters) - The global coronavirus outbreak may have erased $5 trillion in world stock values last week, but it is providing a windfall for Roman Zrazhevskiy and his family-owned company that makes and distributes gas masks and other protective gear.

The demand for respirators, hazmat suits and other safety equipment, fueled by growing concern about a possible global COVID-19 pandemic, is dwarfing a January sales spike triggered by a U.S. air strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, which prompted fears of retaliation.

“What’s currently going on now with the coronavirus is making that look like a drop in the water,” Zrazhevskiy said.

His Austin, Texas-based company, MIRA Safety, ships protective gear to the general public that its website says is the same equipment used by law enforcement agencies and the military.

The two-year-old private company falls into the middle of a handful of global gas-mask makers, spokesman Adam Handelsman said. 3M Co and Honeywell International Inc are among the biggest, but “we’re not in that realm,” he said.

MIRA Safety is flooded with orders, with backlogs of up to 12 weeks on some products, Zrazhevskiy said. The first batch of its new ParticleMax P3 virus filter, which attaches to gas masks, sold out within two hours of its launch in February, he added.

“People typically order respirators for their family,” he said. “They order hazmat suits as well, gloves and boots - pretty much everything they need to protect themselves head to toe from CBRN agents.” CBRN refers to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear material.

The World Health Organization said this week the coronavirus outbreak has created global shortages of some protective equipment, resulting in price hikes. Prices of surgical masks have increased sixfold, tripled for N95 respirators, and doubled for protective gowns, it said.

Handelsman said MIRA Safety has not raised its prices even as sales have jumped more than 2,000% in the past two months and as production facilities operate around the clock.

Despite the clamor for masks, the Centers for Disease Control and other health professionals do not recommend them as coronavirus protection under ordinary circumstances, said Dr. Rama Thyagarajan of the University of Texas Dell Medical School.

Caretakers for people who are infected would be the only exception, she said.

“Even if you get a mask,” Thyagarajan said, “if you don’t know how to use it, how to dispose of it and how to keep your hands clean while you’re touching your nose, you’re really not doing a good enough job of protecting yourself.”

While Zrazhevskiy said his products can block 99.99995% of coronavirus particulates, he said hand-washing is the first line of defense against the disease.

“You should consider personal protective equipment as a second line of defense,” he added. “Isolation is the best thing.” (Writing and additional reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Frank McGurty and Richard Chang)