Chinese tech giant starts drug-sharing platform amid COVID-induced medicine shortage

The shortages are linked to breakdowns in distribution and supply networks ravaged by the zero-COVID policy.
By Jing Wei for RFA Mandarin and Raymond Cheng for RFA Cantonese
2022.12.22
Chinese tech giant starts drug-sharing platform amid COVID-induced medicine shortage People line up to buy medicine at a pharmacy in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022.
AFP

Chinese tech giant Tencent has set up a social media platform in a bid to help people source common fever medicines, which are in short supply as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 rips through the country's 1.4 billion population after the lifting of pandemic controls.

The "mutual aid platform" on the popular social media app WeChat is aimed at allowing people to share surplus medicines amid a nationwide run on medicines that has spread beyond China's borders, as Chinese nationals tap friends and relatives overseas for supplies.

Chinese officials said last week that they had begun taking steps to ensure the supply of acetaminophen and ibuprofen, two of the commonest painkillers and antipyretic medicines, amid a nationwide shortage that has led to price-gouging in pharmacies in Hong Kong. 

On Dec. 20, the country's Medical Products Administration said it was "guiding pharmaceutical companies to ... expand production capacity in an orderly manner," the government-backed English-language Global Times newspaper reported.

Authorities in the central city of Wuhan said they would be releasing 3 million ibuprofen tablets a day for a week starting on Dec. 24, while official in the eastern city of Jinan said they had already released a fresh tranche of 1.1 million ibuprofen tablets to the local market.

Officials are also working with five major drug manufacturers in Beijing to ensure more supplies amid a massive wave of infections and deaths in the capital, the paper reported.

Statistics published by Tencent showed that Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Nanjing had the biggest shortages of the two drugs, while people sharing the drugs via the platform were mostly concentrated in Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou.

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A man walks past a poster on a pharmacy saying it is sold out of ibuprofen today in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Credit: AFP

‘The entire supply chain has yet to recover’

China is currently the world's largest producer and exporter of generic ibuprofen, accounting for one-third of global capacity, but local media reports have indicated that much of the supply problem results from the breakdown of logistical and distribution networks across the country during the rolling lockdowns and travel bans of the zero-COVID policy.

Chinese commentator Wang Juntao said some of the shortage could also be due to stockpiling in a time of mixed messages from the government.

"A lot of people who don't need this drug are buying it anyway, so demand is growing faster than in other countries," Wang said. 

"Every aspect of China's logistics network has been messed up due to the strict blockades from a while back," he said. "If some links in the distribution chain are interrupted, they won't recover immediately."

"The entire industrial supply chain has yet to recover, causing some serious issues for drug production," Wang said.

The shortages mostly affect supplies of fever-reducing, cough-relief, antivirals and antibiotics, all of which were manufactured according to strict government controls during the zero-COVID policy, which effectively ended Dec. 7 with the government's "10 optimization measures" for the pandemic response.

However, ibuprofen appears to be in the shortest supply among over-the-counter antipyretic medicines.

A WeChat account with the handle @HospitalDirector recently wrote that China has more than 500 companies capable of making ibuprofen, but they would have needed some advanced warning to ramp up production.

Instead the authorities appeared to cease lockdowns, mass tracking of citizens' movements and compulsory testing programs within the space of just a few days, around a week after some people at mass lockdown protests around the country called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping to step down.

Xia Ming, a professor of political science at New York's City University, said Xi has been overly focused on concentrating political power in his own hands in recent years, and has paid scant attention to the needs of Chinese citizens.

"The so-called relaxation [of the zero-COVID policy] that we see today is the inevitable result of the government's inability to contain the pandemic," Xia said.

He said tight controls on dissenting voices, particularly of the government's handling of the pandemic, meant that people with the expertise and authority to challenge the government were keeping quiet amid a culture of fear.

"There are many truly talented people working in Chinese scientific and medical circles and within the State Council system, but they have been excluded [from policy-making], or are too scared to try to make a difference," Xia said.

He said Beijing will likely be forced to start importing overseas vaccines, which have been shown to be far more effective against Omicron than its homegrown ones.

China and Germany signed a vaccine supply deal during last month's visit to China by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that will see a batch of BioNTech vaccines shipped to China soon. 

Once the vaccine starts being rolled out in China, and people notice its effectiveness, the government will come under huge public pressure to start importing far more overseas-made vaccines for use in China, Xia predicted.

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Workers sort medicines at a logistics center belonging to China Resources Pharmaceutical Group Ltd. in Beijing, Monday, Dec. 19, 2022. Credit: cnsphoto via Reuters

Tracking drug sales in Taiwan

Meanwhile, authorities in the democratic island of Taiwan are considering tracking the sales of over-the-counter fever medicines so they can enforce a ban on sending the drugs overseas.

Officials in Taiwan have already called on local residents to avoid buying over-the-counter fever medicines in bulk to send to China, but there is currently no way to enforce such a request. 

Now, the island's Central Epidemic Command Center is considering a real-name rationing scheme for antipyretics in a bid to stop its home-produced and imported medicines from being shipped out to friends and relatives overseas. Pharmacists in Taipei have told Radio Free Asia that people seeking to buy in bulk mostly want to send the drugs to China.

Health and Welfare Minister Hsueh Jui-yuan told lawmakers on Thursday that "purchasing restrictions may be introduced," should the situation in China deteriorate.

"Panadol is a specific brand of [acetaminophen], and there is indeed a run on it right now, but there is still no shortage of medicines with the same ingredients," Hsueh told the Legislative Yuan. 

"We are currently paying close attention to changes in the drug market as a whole."

A Taipei doctor who gave only the surname Chao said the measures could well be needed.

"There is no problem meeting demand in Taiwan, but if [China] comes digging, it's hard to say how much they will take," Chao said. "Things are looking bad over the next month now that these medicines are out of stock [in China] ... but the key thing is the timing."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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