Covid-19 Drug Shortage In China Leads To Frustration, People Turn To Black Market

New Delhi: The family members of Jo Wang an event planner in China’s Beijing fell ill with Covid-19 one by one late last month. She was left searching for antiviral pills to protect her elderly grandfather when his turn came. After three days of trying and failing to purchase a box of Pfizer’s Paxlovid on an e-commerce platform, she got lucky, scoring the Covid treatment via an official channel on the fourth day and receiving it by mail on the sixth, as reported by CNN.

But Wang, who was breaking the rules by seeking the prescription proactively – before her grandfather fell ill – was also wracked with guilt. “I felt really bad at that time … you don’t know how many days it will take to buy this medicine, it is completely unknown. And you don’t know how long the people in your family can hold on,” she said as quoted by CNN, stressing her fear that if she waited until the 92-year-old fell ill, it would be too late to get the pills, which are most effective early in the illness. “It’s a very desperate situation.”

Wang is not the only one struggling to secure Western medications. As Cothe vid-19 wave overwhelmed China, it led tan o increase in demand for treatment – especially for the country’s larger-vaccinated elderly population.

In recent weeks, many in China have turned to the black market where hawkers claim to sell Covid treatments ranging from illegal imports of Indian-made generics of Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s molnupiravir to the bonafide product – up to nearly eight times the market price, as reported by CNN.

Rising frustration over the shortages was compounded by an announcement on Sunday that the government had failed to reach an agreement with Pfizer to include Paxlovid under its national insurance plan, with officials saying the price asked was too high. The decision taken by the Government could mean that after March 31, the drug will only be available to those who can afford to pay full price, with current rates reportedly around 1,900 yuan ($280) per course, CNN reported. Paxlovid was widely used in developed countries last February. It became the first oral pill for Covid to be authorised in China.

China in the latest talks did agree to cover two other treatments used for Covid-19. The traditional Chinese medicine Qingfei Paidu and the homegrown antiviral pill Azvudine. The pricing pitfall and shortages, nearly a year after the pill was first authorised and months after Pfizer tapped a domestic drugmaker for local production, show the challenges facing China as its government grapples with demand for treatments for its population of 1.4 billion after abruptly dropping its Covid controls last month, CNN reported.

Currently, Pfizer’s imported pill is available in community hospitals in some cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou, CNN reported citing state media. The pill is also sold on several e-commerce platforms, where there is some suggestion in local reports that supply constraints are easing.

But there are questions about how broadly the pills will be distributed across China and if there are sufficient medical resources to prescribe them – an urgent issue as the outbreak shifts from urban hubs to smaller cities and rural China. Experts say procurement appears to be decentralised, with the pills more readily available at hospitals in better-resourced major cities and tougher to find elsewhere.

Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla on Monday said the company had ramped up exports, sending millions of courses of Paxlovid to China in the past couple weeks, and was working with its domestic partner Zhejiang Huahai to manufacture Chinese-made Paxlovid in the first half of this year, according to Reuters.

But Bourla, speaking at a conference in San Francisco, also quashed hopes the company might reach a deal with China for domestic drugmakers to produce a generic version of the drug to be sold in-country – denying a January 6 Reuters report that such an arrangement was being discussed.

(With agencies’ Inputs)