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How Covid-hit China is dealing with drug shortages

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Hong Kong

The abrupt change in China’s Covid policy has left its people and health facilities unprepared to deal with a huge wave of infections, leading to widespread shortages of the most common drugs used to relieve flu-like symptoms.

Local versions of Tylenol and Advil are almost impossible to find in pharmacies across the country, fueling anger and concern over the unavailability of basic medical supplies. Collective anxiety skyrocketed after several state media publications started shouting the phrase: “Everyone is responsible first for their own health” in recent weeks.

To quell panic buying, regional governments have launched unusual measures to limit sales and increase supply of folk fever remedies. Some areas resorted to rationing the amount of medicine for sale – even the pill.

As of Tuesday, more than 500 pharmacies in Zhuhai, a port city in southern China, have pledged to “continuously supply” a range of fever-reducing drugs, including ibuprofen, according to a statement from the municipal government. Ibuprofen is the generic name for Advil.

However, there are strict limits on what residents can buy. They may choose only one form of a given fever medicine, for example ibuprofen tablet or liquid form. Purchases are strictly limited to a maximum of six pills or 100 milliliters (3 ounces) of liquid per customer. And that’s for the whole week.

Nanjing, a historic city in eastern China, has pledged to guarantee daily supplies of fever medicine. But he did not specify the type of medication or the total amount provided, which must be divided for sale among 150 drugstores. Each customer can only buy six pills a day.

In the central province of Hubei, the drug regulator says local pharmacies can allow each customer to purchase no more than three days’ worth of ibuprofen or acetaminophen, the generic name for Tylenol, daily.

The rationing policies drew mixed reviews on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Some users called the measures “outrageous,” but others said they could help “prevent the buildup” of medications.

China is one of the world’s largest producers of pharmaceuticals and raw materials used in the manufacture of medicines.

From Heilongjiang province in the far north to the island of Hainan in the far south, dozens of companies in China’s major pharmaceutical hubs said this week they were “doing everything” to expand production of antiviral and fever drugs.

In the southwestern province of Sichuan, the government announced emergency measures on Monday, authorizing payments of up to 1 million yuan ($143,160) per company to allow them to increase production of Covid-related products.

🇧🇷[We] will support companies that manufacture antigen testing kits or Covid medicines to work overtime in production, and provide cash subsidies to employees from our provincial industrial development funds,” according to a notice published by the Sichuan government, adding that the special subsidy would be valid until April 2023.

A major Chinese pharmaceutical company said this week that it expects fever shortages to ease once manufacturers ramp up production.

“The current shortage should be alleviated within two months. With state intervention and regulation, this may be anticipated,” Honz Pharmaceutical said in a statement.

The Haikou-based drug maker said there had been a “short-term” shortage of its fever and cold medicines, mainly due to backlog. But has increased shipment volumes and the shortage should be resolved quickly, the company added.

Such promises do little comfort to Covid patients who are desperately looking for ways to ease their symptoms.

“Over the past five days, I have had many symptoms, but I have not been able to buy any medicine for a sore throat, cough or fever. None of the remedies are available,” Fairy Zang told CNN. Zang is a resident of the Chinese capital, which is currently experiencing its worst Covid outbreak.

“Ultimately, I just bought a box of metronidazole for swollen gums,” she said, referring to a common antibiotic that isn’t effective against viruses. Zang said he finally got some ibuprofen through friends.

Tech giant Tencent announced this week that it had launched a program through its social messaging app Wechat, allowing people to share surplus fever medicine. Users in need of medicine can check boxes indicating their needs and their personal information, giving them the chance to donate to those close to them.

Since its launch on Tuesday, the page has received more than one million visitors, exchanging more than 260,000 messages, Tencent told media group Caixin. The top five cities in need of donations are Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, she said.