China races to make COVID drugs amid fears of holiday season spike

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By Euronews  with Reuters
Travellers stand in line to check in for a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong at Beijing Capital International Airport, 15 January 2023
Travellers stand in line to check in for a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong at Beijing Capital International Airport, 15 January 2023   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Chinese drugmakers rushed to make anti-fever medicines and other treatments for COVID-19 on Thursday, after President Xi Jinping said he was worried about an influx of holiday travellers to rural areas ill-equipped to deal with sudden outbreaks.

Those particularly vulnerable to the virus are the elderly, many of whom are not fully vaccinated and now face exposure as millions of urban workers travel to home towns to reunite with families for Lunar New Year holidays that officially start on 21 January.

Before COVID first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, the holiday was known as the greatest annual migration of people anywhere on the planet.

"China's COVID prevention and control is still in a time of stress, but the light is ahead, persistence is victory," Xi said on Wednesday in a holiday greetings message carried by state broadcaster CCTV.

"I am most worried about the rural areas and farmers. Medical facilities are relatively weak in rural areas, thus prevention is difficult and the task is arduous," Xi said, adding that the elderly were a top priority.

Xi's comments come just over a month after his government abruptly axed his strict "zero-COVID" controls that had largely shielded China's 1.4 billion people from the disease for three years but sparked widespread protests in late November.

As travel ramps up during the busy Lunar New Year holiday season, as many as 36,000 people could die each day from the disease, according to the latest forecasts from UK-based health data firm Airfinity.

China said last Saturday that nearly 60,000 people with COVID had died in hospitals between 8 December and 12 January -- a roughly ten-fold increase from previous disclosures.

However, that number excludes those who die at home, and some doctors in China have said they are discouraged from putting COVID on death certificates. Health experts say China's official figures likely do not reflect the true toll of the virus.

"Based on the reports of hospitals being overwhelmed and long queues outside funeral homes, we might estimate that a larger number of COVID deaths have occurred so far, maybe more than 600,000 rather than just 60,000," said Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University.

China's chaotic exit from a regime of mass lockdowns, travel restrictions and frequent COVID testing has also prompted a run on drugs as people fend for themselves against the disease.

To meet soaring demand, drugmakers in China are ramping up operations to triple their capacity to make key fever and cough medicines, the state-run China Daily reported on Thursday.

China has relied on domestic vaccines to combat the pandemic, eschewing foreign-made ones, which some studies have suggested are more effective. In contrast, other foreign treatments for COVID-19 have been hard to come by in China.

Pfizer's COVID-19 anti-viral drug Paxlovid is available in China but has been very difficult to obtain through official channels, according to media reports and personal accounts. 

The antiviral treatment molnupiravir has also been approved for use but is not yet widely available.

At a meeting this week, China's National Medical Products Administration pledged to stabilise the prices of COVID-related drugs and crack down on counterfeit sales.

Airfinity on Wednesday estimated 62 million people could be infected with the virus between 13-27 January. 

COVID-related deaths could peak at 36,000 a day on 26 January, up sharply from previous forecasts.

"Our forecast estimates a significant burden on China’s healthcare system for the next fortnight and it is likely that many treatable patients could die due to overcrowded hospitals and lack of care," Airfinity’s analytics director Matt Linley said.