By Sophie Yu and Martin Quinn Pollard
BEIJING (Reuters) – When Li’s 83-year-old father, a diabetic, began coughing and complaining of body aches last month, the Beijing resident worried about finding treatment for COVID-19 in case his parents caught the virus sweeping the city.
At the time, he had heard that Pfizer’s antiviral drug Paxlovid was an effective treatment, but patients could only prescribe it if they were hospitalized and the drug was in stock.
The first hospital they visited ran a CT scan that showed his lungs were infected, but turned them away, saying there were no beds, said Lee, who gave his last name because he was sensitive about how authorities might view his account.
After two more days of frantic calls to family and friends, a contact finally got them a place at another hospital, but it took an additional antigen test and a second CT scan before agreeing to prescribe the drug.
With his father admitted to the intensive care unit, Lee worried that it was taking too long to get effective treatment.
“I’m not sure paxlovide can help him. I think it’s because he’s already had the virus for a week when he got the medicine,” Lee told Reuters on Jan. 12.
“There is little we can do now but pray.”
His father died on the same day.
Li’s experience, local media reports, and online postings attest to the difficulties Pakhlovid faces in getting access through official channels in China.
Paxlovid — a combination of two antiviral drugs — is one of several foreign oral treatments approved by Beijing, and a clinical trial found it reduced hospitalizations by about 90% in high-risk patients.
Approved in February of last year, Paxlovid was barely used in China until December, when the government began lifting strict containment policies and a wave of COVID infections began to build.
INCREASE OF PROVISIONS
As Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said last week that thousands of courses of treatment had been shipped to the country last year and millions more in the past few weeks, Chinese officials acknowledged that the supply of Paxlovide is still insufficient to meet demand.
“Pfizer is actively working with Chinese authorities and all stakeholders to ensure an adequate supply of Paklovid in China. We remain committed to meeting the COVID-19 treatment needs of Chinese patients and partnering with the Chinese government,” the company said in a statement.
Racing to contain the rising death toll, China has also approved Merck & Co’s COVID antiviral drug and is considering a treatment developed by Japan’s Shionogi.
Paxlovid is covered by state insurance — albeit temporarily, until the end of March — meaning patients would theoretically have to pay 198 yuan ($29), a tenth of the usual price.
But China does not report how many courses of treatment are being given and where they can be obtained, forcing most patients to rely on media reports, word-of-mouth and even imports through unauthorized channels.
Those who do manage to find suppliers often pay exorbitant prices as demand surges amid a massive wave of COVID-19 infections.
The official Guangzhou Daily reported that patients at the United Family Health Hospital in Guangdong paid 6,000 yuan ($891) for health checks before being allowed to buy Paxlovid at the hospital’s price of 2,300 yuan.
The hospital did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
Health data firm Airfinity estimated in December that China would need 49 million courses of COVID treatment over the next five months, up from more than 22 million in January alone.
The Pfizer drug can also be bought via online platforms with a prescription for 2,170 yuan, but it usually sells out within seconds.
THE PAXLOVID GIFT
Several other people told Reuters how they turned to the gray market to buy Paxlovid. Some wanted to treat sick relatives, while others wanted it just in case.
Chen Jun, a resident of southern China’s Hainan province, said he bought the drug Paxlovide from a supplier introduced by a business associate who said he was from Hong Kong.
Chen paid 20,000 yuan ($2,972) for two boxes on Jan. 2 for his elderly parents, who are suffering from cancer, and he said some people paid double that price.
“When your family members need it, you’ll think it’s cheap because anything is better than going to the hospital now,” he said. “I know people who pay 20,000 yuan for a box of medicine.”
Another buyer, who gave his name as Ray, said he managed to buy two boxes from the US, where supplies are still plentiful and a doctor’s prescription can be obtained after consulting online.
“It’s very simple, they don’t ask questions. After shopping online, he asked a friend there to help him send a courier to China.
An analyst at a Chinese securities house, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said his boss went to Hong Kong to give Paxlovid to clients because it was worth more than the popular, expensive drink.
“This is a better gift than Moutai.”
($1 = 6.7072 Chinese Yuan Renminbi)
(Reporting by Sophie Yu, Martin Pollard and Albee Zhang; Additional reporting by Michael Erman in New York; Writing by Brenda Goh; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Simon Cameron-Moore)