As COVID-19 ravages China, some seek drugs on the black market

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AAs the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in China, the growing demand for Western-developed treatments has led some citizens to turn to the black market. This trend was evident over the weekend when Hong Kong customs officers seized HK$600,000 ($77,000) worth of illegally imported drugs en route to the mainland.

Agents discovered drugs – mainly for the treatment of COVID-19 sold on the mainland – in the luggage of three travelers from India and Thailand, the South China Morning Mail reported.

Two local men returning from Thailand on Sunday were arrested for possession of about 9,000 tablets of Primovir, a generic version of Paxlovid made in India, which is not an authorized treatment in Hong Kong or the mainland.

Both suspects have been released on bail pending further inquiries.

Officers were also reportedly seeking a third suspect, a mainland man who returned from India with 2,000 tablets of antiviral drugs, including Primovir and Paxista, another generic version of Paxlovid, and Merck’s Molnupiravir.

Currently, Molnupiravir and Paxlovid are the only oral medications approved and registered for home treatment of COVID-19 in Hong Kong. The latter drug has been shown to reduce the risk of death and hospitalization in patients taking it soon after the onset of symptoms, while molnupiravir shortens recovery time. Last February, Paxlovid became the first oral pill approved in China for the treatment of COVID-19.

Read more: Why China can’t just end its zero-COVID policy

But Paxlovid and Molnupiravir are in short supply in the country of 1.4 billion people, which has largely tried to use topical treatments to fight COVID-19. Paxlovid and Molnupiravir are sold on the black market for up to eight times the market price.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government failed to reach an agreement with Pfizer to include Paxlovid in its national insurance plans, citing high costs. But the government has agreed to cover the cost of traditional Chinese medicine Qingfei Paidu and Azvudine, a local antiviral drug.

There is limited evidence about Azvudine’s effectiveness, CNN reported.

After three years of some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the world, China began dismantling its zero-COVID policy in December amid unprecedented protests. But an “immunity gap” due to low levels of natural infection, less effective Chinese vaccines and an under-vaccinated elderly population has raised fears that hundreds of thousands of people will die in the coming months.

On Saturday, Chinese authorities said nearly 60,000 people with COVID-19 had died in hospitals between December 8 and 12. Thousands more cases and deaths are expected during the Lunar New Year holiday starting January 21, according to local reports.

According to Reuters, state media regularly reported on rural hospitals and clinics beefing up supplies of medicines and equipment in anticipation of a continued rise in COVID-19 cases.

“The peak of Covid infection in our village has passed, but the Spring Festival is approaching and there are still some villagers, especially the elderly, who are at risk of secondary infection,” a doctor from Shaanxi province, Reuters reported.

“If there were more antiviral and other drugs, I would feel more confident,” the doctor added.

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Write to Armani Syed at

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