The great COVID mystery: Where are the disinfectant wipes?

The great COVID mystery: Where are the disinfectant wipes?

The grocery stores are open, and reasonably well stocked. A brief run on meat products appears ready for resolution now that meatpacking plants are coming back on line. Most blessedly for the bidet-challenged, toilet paper has even made a bit of a comeback on store shelves, at least until the crowds see that as a must-hoard item in advance of the Murder Hornet Plague.

But where oh where are the products we need most in a pandemic — disinfectant wipes and sprays? The Wall Street Journal did a little sleuthing and discovered that producers are still making plenty of both. The demand, however, still overwhelms the supply:

Clorox Co. and Lysol maker Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC have seen sales of sanitizing wipes more than double in the past two months amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to Nielsen. But while makers of other hard-to-find staples are catching up with demand, the producers of Clorox, Lysol and private-label wipes are as far behind as ever. Clorox said it doesn’t expect to catch up until summer, while Reckitt Benckiser said it is unsure when supplies will replenish.

“We’re shipping canisters of wipes every day to our customers, and within 30-45 minutes they’re gone from shelves,” Clorox finance chief Kevin Jacobsen said in an interview. “Demand has outstripped what anybody could have imagined.”

Clorox has increased production of disinfectant products by 40%, but sales have stretched to five times the normal level at times during the spread of Covid-19, Mr. Jacobsen said. U.S. sales of disinfectant wipes were up 146% for the eight-week period ended March 25 compared with a year ago, according to Nielsen.

What about alternatives, such as sprays? Same problem, the WSJ’s Sharon Terlep reports. They’re being produced, and then they’re being swallowed up as soon as they arrive:

While wipes are in short supply, disinfectant sprays, surface cleaners and other coronavirus-fighting cleaning products are selling out as well. Many household and personal-care products, from paper towels to cold medicine to baby wipes, are also in high demand, though aren’t as tough to find as disinfectant wipes.

In other words, this whodunit sounds a lot like Murder on the Orient Express. If we want to find the culprit, we might need to look in the mirror. Collectively speaking, that is; inevitably, the consumers asking the question are the ones who miss out on the production underway.

Terlep hints that the EPA might be another culprit:

Disinfectant wipes can’t be made as readily as hand sanitizer. The process combines fabric wipes with the cleaning solution, and the Environmental Protection Agency has in place criteria for cleaners to be considered effective for use against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

Well, maybe, but we do have those criteria in place already — and that’s the purpose of the demand, too. It wouldn’t make much sense to produce wipes that don’t address that issue. In fact, Clorox tells Terlep that they are stopping production on non-disinfectant wipes and shifted those lines to producing the core product.

This shortage still seems unusual now that we’re two months into the demand. A forty percent increase in production is impressive under normal circumstances, but the capacity to respond to the demand should be much greater. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs, which means that manpower is available to meet the demand. Clorox says they will shortly expand into a new facility in Atlanta, as they expect demand to remain high even when shelves get fully restocked. Lysol also says they’re working on ramping up production, but both companies say it might take a few more months before they can meet the demand pace.

If the issue is production facilities, this is an area in which governments can provide some assistance. This falls within their pandemic response in any number of ways. Better disinfecting protocols will help tamp down transmission, plus it should build more confidence in engaging in public. It offers an opportunity t0 match sidelined workers up with essential jobs, and it would expand manufacturing within the US rather than having to establish more foreign-based supply chains. It would also convert empty commercial space into productive use, requiring fewer law enforcement resources.

Toilet paper and meat will find their former market equilibriums, but sanitizing products will remain in much greater demand after this for a long time to come. This will become a cultural norm, one practically gift-wrapped for the cleaning industry, so the risk of over-production in response to this crisis is low. Now’s the time to incentivize this investment.

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