China's 'elite are stockpiling Pfizer's Covid drug'

China’s ‘elite are stockpiling Pfizer’s Covid drug as country battles huge wave of fresh infections that has left hospitals overflowing with patients after abandoning Zero Covid

  • Basic medicines and Paxlovid Covid treatment are extremely difficult to obtain
  • Hospitals in densely populated Chinese city’s are inundated with Covid patients
  • Rural areas are quickly ramping up medical facilities ahead of New Year holiday
  • Countries around the globe are implementing testing for Chinese travellers

China’s abrupt lifting of many of its tough pandemic restrictions earlier this month has allowed the virus to spread rapidly in a country where most people have little access to treatment. 

Spiraling infections have led to shortages of cold medicine, long lines at fever clinics, and at-capacity emergency rooms turning away patients.  

Beijing city authorities plan to distribute the oral Covid drug Paxlovid at local hospitals and community clinics, but the drug – a combination of antivirals nirmatrelvir and ritonavir produced by Pfizer – remains extremely difficult to obtain for ordinary people.

Health workers claim the Paxlovid shortage is caused in part by the authorities’ reluctance to stock up on foreign medicines and vaccines, but also by wealthy business owners and officials buying up reserves.

Near empty shelves of medicine are seen at a pharmacy amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Beijing on December 17, 2022

This picture shows Covid-19 patients on beds at Tianjin Nankai Hospital in Tianjin on December 28, 2022

The FT cited several sources at public and private hospitals who claimed that China’s elites are stockpiling the drug to help treat family members, dole out to friends, or leverage for business negotiations. 

‘Access to Paxlovid shouldn’t be determined by people’s power or wealth,’ Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong said. 

‘This is a life-saving drug and should be made available to anyone who needs it.’

Meanwhile, several countries have mandated Covid-19 tests for passengers arriving from China amid global concern that the nation’s explosive outbreak could cause a fresh wave of the virus since the Communist Party abandoned its strict ‘zero-Covid’ policies earlier this month. 

The U.S., Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Italy have already announced testing requirements for passengers from China, with British government ministers debating whether to follow suit.  

China’s thinly resourced countryside meanwhile is racing to beef up medical facilities before millions of factory workers return home for the Lunar New Year holiday next month from cities where Covid is surging and many hospitals are already inundated with patients. 

Having imposed the world’s strictest Covid regime of lockdowns and relentless testing for three years, China’s abrupt U-turn has left its fragile health system overwhelmed amid a soaring ‘exit-wave’ of the virus. 

Paxlovid, Pfizer’s anti-viral medication to treat the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is displayed in this picture illustration taken October 7, 2022

Patients line up for treatment at the emergency department of Beijing Chaoyang hospital, amid the coronavirus outbreak in Beijing, China December 27, 2022

Medical workers in protective suits attend to patients at the fever clinic of China-Japan Friendship hospital, amid the coronavirus outbreak in Beijing, China December 27, 2022

Medical workers transport an elderly patient on a stretcher outside an emergency department of a hospital amid a Covid outbreak in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Dec. 27

There have been no reports of new variants in China to date, but President Xi Jinping’s government has been accused of not being forthcoming about the virus since it first surfaced in the country in late 2019. 

Italy on Thursday urged the rest of the European Union to follow its lead and test travellers from China for Covid, but others said they saw no need to do so for now or were waiting for a common stance across the largely border-less bloc.

The EU’s health officials could not agree on one course of action when they held talks in the morning and said they would continue their talks later.

German Health Ministry spokesperson Sebastian Guelde said authorities there have ‘no indication that a more dangerous variant has developed in this outbreak in China,’ but they are monitoring the situation. 

The U.S. meanwhile has already implemented the testing protocols, citing both the surge in infections and what it said was a lack of information, including genomic sequencing of the virus strains in the country.

Authorities in Taiwan and Japan have expressed similar concern.

‘Right now the pandemic situation in China is not transparent,’ Wang Pi-Sheng, the head of Taiwan’s epidemic command center, told The Associated Press. 

‘We have a very limited grasp on its information, and it’s not very accurate.’

The island will start testing everyone arriving from China on Jan. 1, ahead of the expected return of about 30,000 Taiwanese for the Lunar New Year holiday later in the month. 

The new Japanese rules, which restrict flights from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau to designated airports beginning Friday, are already disrupting holiday travel plans.

More broadly, World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said the body needs more information on the severity of the outbreak in China, particularly on hospital and ICU admissions, ‘in order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground.’ 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin noted Thursday that many countries have not changed their policies for travelers from China and said that any measures should treat people from all countries equally.

This picture shows a Covid-19 patient being moved on a bed at Tianjin Nankai Hospital in Tianjin on December 28, 2022

Empty shelves are seen in a pharmacy as customers try to find medicine to prepare for a wave of COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing

A medical worker attends to a patient at the emergency department of Ganyu District People’s Hospital, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, China December 28, 2022

Chinese health officials have said the current outbreak is being driven by versions of the omicron variant that have also been detected elsewhere, and a surveillance system has been set up to identify any potentially worrisome new versions of the virus. 

Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist at China’s Centre for Disease Control, said Thursday that China has always reported the virus strains it has found in a timely way.

‘We keep nothing secret,’ he said. ‘All work is shared with the world.

Chinese state media has not reported the fallout from the surge widely and government officials have blamed Western media for hyping up the situation.

The global concerns, tinged with anger, are a direct result of the ruling Communist Party’s sudden exit from some of the world’s most stringent anti-virus policies, said Miles Yu, director of the China Centre at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

‘You can’t conduct the lunacy of ”zero-Covid” lockdowns for such a long period of time – and then suddenly unleash a multitude of the infected from a caged China to the world,’ risking major outbreaks elsewhere, Yu told the Associated Press.

Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the move by the U.S. may be more about increasing pressure on China to share more information than stopping a new variant from entering the country.

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