Chinese are taking risks with drugs on the black market as Covid-19 surges

Desperate families searching for essential Covid-19 medicines in China are being pushed into murky online marketplaces riddled with price gouging and fraud amid empty pharmacy shelves and an explosion of cases.

Beijing abruptly tore down its signature zero-Covid-virus containment policy last month, lifting widespread restrictions that had sparked nationwide protests and stifled the economy. The move sparked a spate of infections across the country.

The current Covid wave has seen drugstores run out of stock as people buy cold and fever medicine. Many were forced to turn to shady online sellers who had little guarantee of getting what they paid for.

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China’s people have long endured scandals of tainted medicines, fabricated clinical trials and lax regulations in the medical industry – leading many to be skeptical of domestically made medicines.

Desperate for treatment for sick family members, Qiu, 22, told AFP she had spent thousands on Covid drugs that never arrived after contacting someone online claiming to represent Hong Kong-based Ghitai Pharmaceutical.

The person said he has access to stocks of Paxlovid – a Beijing-approved Covid treatment being developed by US drug giant Pfizer – and could ship some from the semi-autonomous city to mainland China.

After being redirected to a fancy “official” website, Qiu spent 12,000 yuan (US$1,740) on six cases of Paxlovid, according to payment records seen by AFP.

However, the pills never came and the rep cut off contact, leaving her “hurt, helpless and extremely angry”.

“It’s disgusting behavior,” Qiu said. “Every second counts when you’re trying to save someone’s life.”

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The prices are rising

In a statement to AFP, Ghitai said it was aware of a fake version of its website claiming to provide Covid medicine, adding that fraud had been reported to police.

“Ghitai has never offered drugs for Covid-19 and urges consumers to exercise caution to avoid fraud and financial loss,” the company said.

Authorities in China have said they have started supplying Paxlovid to some hospitals and community clinics, but the drug remains extremely difficult to obtain for many.

Several clinics in several cities — including Beijing and the megacity of Shanghai — told AFP they are not currently offering the treatment and don’t know when they might be able to.

Limited stocks on ecommerce platforms also sell out quickly, allowing scalpers to make money.

A seller contacted by AFP this week said he was asking 18,000 yuan ($2,610) for a single box — about nine times the official price.

They claimed the drug would be shipped from the southern city of Shenzhen, but buyers would have to “wait” for delivery.

The seller did not say how he obtained the pills and stopped responding after an AFP journalist identified himself.

“Despair and Helplessness”

China’s Ministry of Public Security on Monday ordered a crackdown on “illegal and criminal activities related to the manufacture and sale of counterfeit medicines and related items.”

Despite these risks, the black market remains a common last resort for people like Xiao, whose elderly grandfather fell ill in December.

The 25-year-old business graduate was “completely stunned” when an online advertiser asked for 18,000 yuan for Paxlovid.

She couldn’t afford it, and her despair turned to “despair and helplessness” when her grandfather died days later.

“I just don’t understand how some people got their hands on the medicine,” she said. “People like us can’t even buy a box. How do you have so many?”

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With approved drugs virtually out of reach, some are risking illegally imported generic alternatives.

Overseas medicines usually cost a fraction of the cost, but importers can face legal action when importing unregulated medicines.

Indian variants of Paxlovid are cheaper but still fetch hefty sums.

In an online chat this week, an AFP reporter ran into a person claiming to be an Indian pharmacist offering dozens of potential Chinese buyers generic anti-Covid drugs for up to 1,500 yuan ($217) a box .

These included a variant of Paxlovid sold under the brand name Paxista and two generics for the treatment by pharmaceutical giant Merck called Movfor and Molaz.

Beijing last week granted Merck’s antiviral drug – sold internationally as Lagevrio – emergency conditional approval for use in vulnerable adults with Covid.

A Shenzhen-based intermediary for the pharmacist said he saw “no moral dilemma” in setting high prices for the potentially life-saving drug, adding that he was more concerned about legal issues.

In the chat room, several users had doubts about the reliability of the generics.

One woman said, “I just don’t know who to believe.”

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