Many are compelled to purchase from suspicious online sellers after drug stores short on supplies following Beijing lifting widespread restrictions

China's public security ministry ordered a crackdown on
China's public security ministry ordered a crackdown on "illegal and criminal activity involving the production and sale of counterfeit epidemic-related medicines and related items". (AP)

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 rife with price gouging and fraud.

Beijing last month abruptly tore down its hallmark zero-Covid-19 virus containment policy, lifting widespread restrictions that had triggered nationwide protests and stifled the economy. The move unleashed a torrent of infections across the country.

The 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 medicine, fabricated clinical trials and lax regulation in the medical industry, prompting many to be skeptical of domestically-produced pharmaceuticals.

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

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 ($1,740) 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".

Prices increase

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

"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.

Multiple clinics in several cities, including Beijing and megacity Shanghai, told AFP they were not currently offering the treatment and did not know when they could do so.

Limited stocks on e-commerce platforms have also rapidly sold out, leaving scalpers to cash in.

One seller contacted by AFP this week said they were charging 18,000 yuan ($2,610) for a single box, around nine times the official price.

Crackdown on illegally imported medication

China's public security ministry on Monday ordered a crackdown on "illegal and criminal activity involving the production and sale of counterfeit epidemic-related medicines and related items".

Despite those risks, the black market remains a common last resort for people like Xiao, whose elderly grandfather fell ill in December.

The business administrator, 25, was "utterly bewildered" when an online tout demanded 18,000 yuan for Paxlovid.

She could not afford it, and her desperation turned to "despair and helplessness" when her grandfather died days later.

With authorised medications virtually out of reach, some are taking a chance on illegally imported generic alternatives.

Overseas drugs typically come at a fraction of the cost, but importers can face legal action for bringing in unregulated medications.

Indian variants of Paxlovid are cheaper, but still command hefty sums.

Beijing gave conditional emergency approval last week to Merck's antiviral, sold internationally as Lagevrio, for use on vulnerable adults with Covid.

A Shenzhen-based intermediary for the pharmacist said they saw "no moral quandary" in setting high prices for the potentially life-saving medication, adding that they were more concerned about legal problems.

READ MORE: As Covid cases surge, China takes control of medicine production and supply

Source: AFP