China’s Covid-19 wave sparks scramble for vital drugs across region

Ibuprofen, paracetamol and Pfizer Inc’s Paxlovid are among the most sought-after medicines in China. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

BEIJING – A tsunami of coronavirus infections in China is causing shortages of key drugs across the region as relatives and friends living overseas ship painkillers and antivirals from abroad, driving up prices and forcing some stores to cap purchases.

South Korea’s health ministry warned on Wednesday that it would punish the sale of “excessive amounts” of cold medicine to an individual patient, after local media reported that a Chinese customer had bought 6 million won (S$6,400) worth of drugs in Hanam city in Gyeonggi Province. Some pharmacies in Taiwan are running low on Panadol cold and flu tablets, while Bloomberg News visited 20 dispensaries in Hong Kong that were out of Panadol and Coltalin pills.

Beijing’s decision to abruptly remove most pandemic restrictions with little preparation is driving an unprecedented number of cases, leaving hospitals and funeral homes overwhelmed. Almost 37 million people were possibly infected on a single day last week, according to estimates from the government’s top health authority. That has led to a dearth of critical over-the-counter medicines locally, fuelling the surge in cross-border shipments.

Ms Shen Tsai-Ying, a pharmacist in Taipei, told Bloomberg News that Panadol was out of stock, and staff were instructed to refuse sales of more than 80 pills of antipyretics to help prevent stockpiling. 

“We’re worried that Taiwanese people who work in China or have Chinese spouses will hoard and send antipyretics back,” Mr Huang Chin Shun, chairman of the Taiwan Pharmacists Association, said in an interview on Thursday.

Ibuprofen, paracetamol and Pfizer’s Paxlovid are among the most sought-after medicines in China, but the supply crunch is forcing residents to queue up for hours outside stores. Delivery apps say orders could take weeks to arrive. E-commerce platform Meituan said its medicine service provider, starting Thursday, would include an option for pharmacies to help them sell paracetamol and ibuprofen in smaller lots.

Just like the Taipei pharmacy, other outlets in the region such as Singapore supermarket FairPrice and Hong Kong pharmacy chains Watsons and Mannings are responding to the buying spree by imposing purchase limits on Panadol and Nurofen. Some pharmacies in Japan are following suit, according to 27-year-old Tokyo resident Yichun Geng. She said she could buy only two boxes of the ibuprofen tablet EVE at one outlet to send to family in China.

Tokyo-based Taisho Pharmaceutical Holdings, which makes over-the-counter cold remedy Pabron, said it has seen an “unexpected, sudden increase” in demand after speculative Chinese social media posts saying the medicine eases Covid-19 symptoms. Taisho said on Thursday that none of the OTCs, including its own, is known to be effective against Covid-19, and advised customers to exercise caution. 

Asahi Shimbun reported that the increase in demand for cold medicines is emptying out shelves of drugstores in Japan.

For those lucky enough to lay their hands on dwindling supplies, logistics is proving to be a hurdle. 

Courier ShunXing Logistics in Singapore is placing caps on the number of Covid-related medical items people can mail due to a “manpower shortage and overcrowding”, it announced in a WeChat post last week. Some branches are allowing a maximum of 50 customers per day to send parcels containing Covid-19 medicines.

People queue at the Shun Xing Express outlet in People’s Park Complex on Dec 23, 2022.  ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

The boom has also meant a windfall for some couriers and scalpers, with some charging as much as 10 times the retail price for medicines.

Ms Wang, a Singapore-based Chinese energy broker who did not wish to disclose her full name owing to sensitivities in China, said one student on e-commerce app Xiaohongshu, or Little Red Book, had offered to deliver Panadol to Shandong province when he returned for the holidays, but for a fee of S$40 plus the drug’s cost of S$7-S$10 per box.

Another Singapore resident, who identified himself as Mr Xu, said his uncle in Shanghai had spent more than 1,000 yuan (S$193) on “bulk purchases of useless medicines” in a deal that included a box of the vital Nurofen tablets. “There’s high demand and low supply, so these shops think about making money,” he added.

In Hong Kong, staff at Mannings had put up signs under bare shelves reading “keep prices down”, next to notices informing customers that sales of cold, flu and pain relief products would be limited to two units per brand in a single transaction due to “a sudden surge in demand”. Watsons has capped Panadol purchases at six boxes.

A shop clerk at a dispensary in Mong Kok – a Hong Kong neighbourhood – said he had seen prices of Panadol Cold and Flu tablets, which usually retail at about HK$58 (S$10) to HK$71, shoot up to as high as HK$400 per pack. State-owned media Wen Wei Po reported on Friday that one pharmacy had bumped up the price of Molnupiravir, a Covid-19 antiviral, from HK$1,800 to HK$2,500 over two days.

The high prices and long wait times are not deterring those seeking to ride out the wave, which China’s National Health Commission predicts will peak during January.

“I am worried. There are elderly people at home, my grandfather and my grandmother,” said Ms Zhang, a Singapore resident who sent three boxes of Panadol to her family in Anhui. “It’s good to be prepared. They can still use them in the future.” BLOOMBERG

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