Roughly one month has passed since Chinese authorities signaled an end to nearly three years of a zero-tolerance approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent weeks have seen soaring cases across the country, pushing many people to various domestic health platforms in an attempt to purchase coveted antiviral medication and fever-reduction pills.
Paxlovid, an orally administered treatment produced by US-based Pfizer that is still the only foreign Covid drug authorized for nationwide use by Chinese regulators, has become the target of stiff competition for online orders.
The skyrocketing demand has been difficult to meet. While some health platforms have confirmed sale of the drug, limited availability has caused them to sell out quickly, often making it a challenge to find effective results while searching in the apps.
To manage the supply crunch, some platforms have designated a certain number of doses to become available on a repeated daily schedule. In one case, JD Health was reported to be releasing 500 packages of the drugs each morning at 10am, offering users seeking to relieve severe cases a brief chance to place orders.
One Beijing resident surnamed Li told Pandaily on January 3 that he had attempted to purchase Paxlovid for a parent with uncomfortable Covid symptoms but had so far been unsuccessful. “We went to the hospital, where a doctor said Paxlovid would likely resolve the symptoms, but that if we wanted to get it, we’d need to search for it ourselves on the market,” said Li.
Supply of medication within the city’s health system has been scattered. A staff member at a hospital in Beijing’s Chaoyang District told Pandaily on Monday that they did have a limited number of Paxlovid doses, but that they were being reserved for the most severe Covid infections.
The scarcity has underpinned the development of a black-market economy for pills, with reports of resellers charging up to 50,000 yuan ($7,263) for a single box of Paxlovid – a more than twentyfold increase from its standard price in China.
Reports have also emerged indicating that much of the supply is being purchased by healthy buyers with deep pockets, and that medicine is even being given away as gift – a bit like Moutai, said one official cited by the Financial Times, referring to an expensive Chinese grain liquor brand that is commonly exchanged in business contexts.
In the northwestern provincial capital of Lanzhou, one young resident surnamed Shen told Pandaily that her family had been unable to purchase Paxlovid as a precaution before being infected, and that many in the city have been turning to various copycat products. Many of the producers of these pills, despite being official partners with the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool, have not gained official permission to be sold in mainland China, forcing would-be purchasers in the country to seek backdoor methods.
One domestic media report describes consumers using indirect keywords such as “India purchasing agent” to search on e-commerce sites and add the WeChat contacts of merchants selling Paxlovid-like drugs such as Primovir and Paxista, many of which are produced by Indian pharmaceutical firms.
When asked about the possibility of using these unauthorized copycat drugs, a health worker at the hospital in Beijing’s Chaoyang District said that it was not advisable, given their potential side effects and lack of formal authorization by authorities.
Many of the country’s top technology companies have been attempting to alleviate the challenges of opening the country up to Covid. Shenzhen-based Tencent, for example, launched a mini-program service in mid-December on its ubiquitous WeChat app, enabling users to post location-based requests and updates about their current need for, or surplus of, critical medicine and other anti-pandemic supplies.
“Some people have realized,” wrote the firm in an announcement, “there is a lot of medicine at home, and taking just a few pills cures the sickness, so the remaining medicine can be used to help others.”
As the initial wave of cases begins to wane in some Chinese cities, the reality of living with Covid is beginning to sink in. In the coming months and years, as potential new variants and periodic spikes in cases take their toll, these digital platforms are likely to continue shaping the population’s fight against an unrelenting pandemic.