As China grapples with a spike in COVID-19 infections, a shortage of antiviral drugs such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid has propelled people into turning to the black market.
Besides Paxlovid, Azvudine — an HIV drug from Chinese firm Genuine Biotech — was approved by China as an antiviral for COVID-19 this year. However, these drugs are in limited supply and only available in specific hospitals, as per the Hong-Kong based South China Morning Post newspaper.
China’s sudden U-turn from its harsh zero-COVID policy in early December has led to a surge in coronavirus cases, with Zhejiang – an industrial province near Shanghai – recording a million new daily infections, as per Reuters.
But, why are people scrambling to black markets for antiviral medicines in China? We explain.
Search for antiviral drugs
The current COVID-19 outbreak in China has strained the healthcare system and rose demand for food items rich in Vitamin C. The paucity of pain and fever medicines has triggered panic buying at both pharmacies and online sites.
Earlier in December, China had allowed retail sales of Paxlovid and also authorised online healthcare service providers to offer consultations and prescribe drugs.
Paxlovid, an oral antiviral developed by Pfizer, reduces the risk of hospitalisation and death by 89 per cent, as per an interim analysis.
According to a Bloomberg report, people are seeking out antiviral therapies, however, such drugs are in short supply.
This has prompted people to turn to online sales mediums to access generic versions of these drugs made outside China which are not approved for sale there, the report added citing social media posts and newspaper reports.
Users are sharing information and tips on social media on where to get illegally imported India-made generic drugs.
Topics such as “anti-Covid Indian generic drugs sold at 1,000 yuan (US$144) per box” are trending on Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform, as per the South China Morning Post report.
Four generic anti-Covid drugs from India – under the brand names Primovir, Paxista, Molnunat and Molnatris – are available in the black market in China, the report added.
As per Tencent News, while Paxlovid is being sold at 2,980 yuan per box, a box of India-made medicines can be purchased for 530 to 1,600 yuan.
Notably, these India-made drugs are not approved in China, and selling them can attract punishments.
According to the Hong Kong-based newspaper, some e-commerce platforms are using “euphemistic labels to bypass keyword censorship” to sell these generic medicines.
A Weibo user wrote on Sunday that she was buying generic Paxlovid made in Bangladesh as she had an elderly relative and could not access the medicine, Bloomberg reported.
Another Weibo user demanded easier availability of these drugs. The user also reportedly shared a picture of an advertisement for Indian generic versions of Paxlovid that can be delivered in two to three weeks.
As per Shanghai-based The Paper, over 50,000 boxes of foreign generic antivirals have been sold since the initial relaxation of zero-COVID norms in November.
Public health experts have warned people against using drugs procured through illegal channels.
Bloomberg said that those buying antivirals are paying exorbitant amounts.
An unidentified white-collar worker in Guangdong had to shell out 5,800 yuan (S$1,120) to a Hong Kong agent for one box of Paxlovid, over twice the official rate in China, the 21st Century Business Herald reported.
Dr Siddharth Sridhar, clinical assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Microbiology, says it remains unclear if China can meet the soaring demand.
“Even if there is enough Paxlovid for China’s large population, a distribution infrastructure to get these pills to patients in time isn’t something that can be set up overnight,” he was quoted as saying by Bloomberg.
As per state media, China’s capital Beijing is likely to distribute Paxlovid and Azvudine to community hospitals. Many such hospitals have told South China Morning Post that they had been given official notice for online training on administering the drugs, but they were yet to get the stock.
Pfizer has assured it would ensure an adequate supply of Paxlovid in China, saying it is committed to meeting the “treatment needs of patients in the country and worldwide”.
“The company continues to evaluate options to increase capacity, including opportunities to expand manufacturing capabilities, increase supplier base for key materials and contract manufacturing options for its supply chain,” Pfizer said, as per Bloomberg.
Some local companies such as Henan Genuine Biotech and Brii Biosciences are also developing antiviral medicines amid the surge in demand.
With inputs from agencies
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