January 13, 2023
BEIJING – The sudden lifting of Covid-19 restrictions in early December appeared to have caught Chinese pharmaceutical firms off guard, with two drugmakers in Beijing saying they ramped up production only after receiving notice from the government.
While the worst of China’s Covid-19 surge has abated in major cities including Beijing and Guangzhou, the abrupt about-turn, which allowed people to isolate at home if they were infected, led to a run on pharmacies in December, with widespread shortage of antiviral drugs and fever medication.
Mr Zhang Jiang, deputy general manager of Youcare Pharmaceutical Group, said the company increased production on Dec 10 after receiving orders from the Beijing municipal government.
“All our workers have been working overtime, and the production lines have been running 24 hours a day. This will continue, even during the upcoming Spring Festival holiday,” he said, adding that the company will pay workers three times their normal salaries during the holiday.
The drugmaker’s production lines in Beijing for its cold medication, which includes paracetamol, were running at full tilt during a media visit this week organised by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Youcare is currently producing 150,000 boxes of the drug a day – five times more than the 30,000 previously, said Mr Zhang.
The authorities have faced criticism for the sudden exit on Dec 7 from the zero-Covid policy despite being ill-prepared. The policy change led to a surge in infections that also caused long lines at clinics because people did not have fever medication at home.
Asked if the government had given advance notice to boost production before it lifted the pandemic curbs, Mr Zhang dodged the question, saying only that Youcare has “fully cooperated” with Beijing’s requests.
Another drugmaker, the state-owned CR Double-Crane, said it was notified by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on Jan 2 to produce the oral antiviral Azvudine.
The drug, which was approved in 2021 to treat the human immunodeficiency virus, is the only Chinese-developed antiviral drug that has received emergency approval in China for the treatment of Covid-19.
Two other antivirals – Merck’s Molnupiravir and Pfizer’s Paxlovid – have the same approvals, but they are not made domestically.
CR Double-Crane is waiting for quality-check approvals, and would be able to supply the market with 80 million tablets a month by the end of January, said Ms Wang Lili, a general manager at the firm.
“At the moment, production lines for Azvudine are running 24 hours a day; there are no breaks, even during weekends and holidays,” she said.
Dr Wang Guiqiang, head of the infectious diseases department at Peking University First Hospital, said Azvudine was a “very important part” of the treatment of Covid-19 in China. He noted that Molnupiravir had just received approval, while demand for Paxlovid far exceeded its supply.
Pfizer is reportedly working with a Chinese drugmaker to produce Paxlovid domestically, and could begin to do so within a matter of months.