CHINA — As China government abruptly ended the strict zero-Covid policy earlier this month, the pharmaceutical industry in the country has been scrambling to cope with surging drug demand amid an explosion of COVID-19 cases.
Pharmacies in major cities have been stripped bare in the wake of the Chinese government’s sudden decision to lift years of lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing.
Drugmakers across the country have been all hands on deck as the soaring COVID-19 case pushed their medical supply chain to the limits, according to China news portal Caixin Global.
A drugmaker in China’s western region had foresighted in early December that there would be a rapid surge in drug demand, as their noticed Hebei authority lifted the purchase limit of four kinds of generic anti-Covid drugs on 1 December.
“Someone speculated that the COVID restriction will be eased soon. Hence I said we need to stock up on Friday (2 Dec) and started purchasing on next Monday, then the “new 10 measures” was released on Wednesday (7 Dec), ” the drugmaker recalled.
From the previous status of merely maintaining production, pharmaceutical companies had since stepped up effort to operate round-the-clock at full capacity, struggling to catch up with rocketing demand for cold and fever medicines.
Even so, Caixin noted that the production of the fever drug Ibuprofen, and antigen test kit could take a whole month or 40 days, while Chinese patent medicines could also take one or two weeks after going through a process of approval, material preparation, and random inspection.
These companies might need time to hire additional staff and expand their production line.
Caixin projected that the supply of these drugs would remain tight for the moment.
China state media claims drug shortage easing
However, China’s state media Global Times claimed that the drug shortages are easing, thanks to various measures taken by the government and pharmaceutical firms.
The report said one of the firms, Hebei Dongfeng Pharmaceutical, which produces ibuprofen and other drugs, is now operating at full capacity.
“The daily production capacity of ibuprofen at the company reaches 1.5 million tablets, which is sufficient to meet the daily needs of 300,000 people, ” the report said.
Last Tuesday (20 Dec), China National Medical Products Administration said that it has increased support for the market supply of medications related to the epidemic, including guiding pharmaceutical companies to conduct research in accordance with regulations and expand production capacity in an orderly manner.
China officials estimated that hundreds of thousands of people infected COVID
While the country’s National Health Commission has stopped issuing daily case numbers, officials in several cities estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have been infected in recent weeks.
Hospitals and crematoriums have been overwhelmed across the country.
Beijing faces major risks as it eased strict zero-Covid policy, said Prof Donald Low
Earlier this month, Donald Low, Senior Lecturer and Professor of Practice in Public Policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), predicted that Beijing faces at least three major risks as it drops the strict zero-Covid restrictions and tries to find a way out of the pandemic without an unacceptably high number of deaths.
One of the challenges is that China’s elderly population remains under-vaccinated, compared to the elderly populations of most developed countries at the start of this year.
Under the zero-Covid strategy, the CCP government implemented mass testing, centralised quarantine facilities, and lockdowns in the hope of suppressing COVID cases to zero.
“Given how those health care resources have been directed that way, I suspect there has been an underinvestment in the kind of things that they would need to do to deal with or to cope with a live-in approach, ” Prof Donald Low said.
“And specifically, I’m talking about whether they have sufficient hospital capacity, whether there are sufficient ICU beds, and, of course, whether they have vaccinated the vulnerable segments of the population sufficiently.”