Chinese resort to black market for COVID-19 drugs amid infection surge

Chinese resort to black market for COVID-19 drugs amid infection surge

Desperate families searching for critical COVID-19 medication in China — faced with bare pharmacy shelves and an explosion of cases — are being driven into murky online marketplaces that are rife with price gouging and fraud.

Beijing last month abruptly tore down its hallmark zero-COVID virus containment policy, lifting widespread restrictions that had triggered nationwide protests and stifled the economy.

The move has unleashed a torrent of infections across the country.

China’s current COVID-19 wave has seen drug stores stripped of supplies, as people snap up cold and fever treatments.

Many have been forced to turn to sketchy, online sellers with little guarantee of getting what they have paid for.

China’s people have long endured scandals involving tainted medicines, fabricated clinical trials and lax regulation in the medical industry, prompting many to be sceptical of domestically produced pharmaceuticals.

Desperately searching for treatment for sick family members, Qiu, 22, told AFP that she spent thousands on COVID-19 medicines that never arrived, after contacting someone online who was claiming to represent Hong Kong-based Ghitai Pharmaceutical.

Chinese resort to black market for COVID-19 drugs amid infection surge
Some people have paid thousands of dollars online just to secure COVID-19 medication for sick family members.(Reuters)

The person said they had access to stocks of Paxlovid — a Beijing-approved COVID treatment developed by US drug giant Pfizer — and could mail some from the semi-autonomous city into mainland China.

After being directed to a sleek “official” website, Qiu then forked out 12,000 yuan ($2,561) for six boxes of Paxlovid, according to payment records seen by AFP.

The pills, however, never came and the representative cut off contact, leaving her “hurt, helpless and extremely angry”.

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

Clinics not offering Paxlovid treatment

In a statement to AFP, Ghitai said it was aware of a fake version of its website that claimed to provide COVID-19 medication, adding that instances of fraud had been reported to police.

Pfizer's new COVID pills in their packaging coming out of the production line.
Chinese are finding it difficult to get their hands on COVID-19 treatments such as Paxlovid. (Reuters: Pfizer handout)

“Ghitai has never offered medicines … for COVID-19, and entreats consumers to exercise caution to avoid fraud and financial losses,” the company said.

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

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