The US has approved an application by speech recognition firm iFlytek to exempt the company from a months-long trade ban in order to buy medical supplies.

Why it matters: An epidemic of a new flu-like virus dubbed Covid-19 has killed nearly 2,600 people in China after appearing in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. The outbreak has resulted in medical supply shortages around the country with hospitals in several major cities appealing to the public for donations.

  • The US placed several Chinese technology companies including iFlytek on the so-called Entity List in October, effectively blocking them from doing business with American companies without permission.

Details: iFlytek applied for an exemption on Feb. 7 to make “charitable donations” of medical supplies that it was restricted from buying in the US as a result of the ban. The US Department of Commerce has subsequently approved the request, iFlytek said in a filing to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange on Monday.

  • The company said previously that it had commissioned a US-based law firm to submit a formal exemption request, making an appeal “in the spirit of humanitarianism and international cooperation.”
  • The Covid-19 outbreak has put huge pressure on China’s healthcare system. Hospitals in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, among others, have asked the public to donate respirator masks and other medical supplies for healthcare workers.
  • iFlytek said its artificial intelligence technology is being used to screen people for Covid-19. The company’s tech is also being used in online learning platforms for house-bound students around the country.

Context: China’s tech sector mobilized its resources to curb the spread of the infection. Meituan, Alibaba, and Tencent, among other companies, have made donations exceeding RMB 3 billion ($429 million).

  • Meanwhile, companies including AI firm SenseTime have started offering online classes while students learn at home amid school closures because of the virus. E-commerce platforms have also stepped in. JD.com vowed to ensure adequate supply of face masks to the public and curb consumer stockpiling.
  • The US blacklisted iFlytek and several prominent Chinese AI companies including Sensetime and Megvii over their alleged complicity in Beijing’s human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is a Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covers Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, and cybersecurity. You can contact him at chrisudemans [at] technode [dot] com.

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