By Nectar Gan, Eric Cheung and Selina Wang, CNN
(CNN) — Beijing will begin distributing Pfizer’s Covid-19 drug Paklovid to the city’s health centers in the coming days, state media reported Monday.
The report comes as the city grapples with an unprecedented wave of infections that has severely strained its hospitals and emptied pharmacy shelves.
The state-run China News Service reported on Monday that community doctors, after being trained, will administer the drug to Covid-19 patients and give instructions on how to use it.
“We have received notification from officials, but it is not clear when the drugs will arrive,” a worker at a local community health center in Beijing’s Xicheng District was quoted as saying.
Paklovid remains the only foreign drug to treat Covid that has been approved by China’s regulatory body for nationwide use, but access is extremely difficult. When the Chinese health platform offered the antiviral drug earlier this month, it sold out within hours.
Azvudine, an oral drug developed by China’s Genuine Biotech, has also been approved.
After nearly three years of lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing, China abruptly abandoned its zero-Covid policy this month following protests across the country on a major economic and social day.
The sudden lifting of restrictions triggered panic buying of fever and cold medicines, leading to widespread shortages, both in pharmacies and online shopping platforms. Long lines have become routine outside fever clinics and hospital wards packed with patients in the capital Beijing and elsewhere in the country.
An emergency room doctor in Beijing told the state-run People’s Daily on Thursday that the four doctors on his shift had no time to eat or drink. “We were seeing patients non-stop,” he said.
Another doctor in the emergency room told the newspaper that he was working even though he had symptoms of a fever. “The number of patients is large, and with less medical staff, the pressure has increased many times over,” said the doctor.
In a sign of the strain on Beijing’s medical system, hundreds of health workers from across China have traveled to the city to help medical centers.
As the capital city, Beijing has some of the best medical resources in the country. However, the sudden turnaround with zero Covid has left people and healthcare facilities ill-prepared to deal with the surge in infections.
China’s official number of Covid cases has become meaningless after it canceled mass testing and allowed residents to use antigen tests and self-isolate at home. She stopped reporting asymptomatic cases, admitting that it was no longer possible to track the actual number of infections.
According to an internal estimate by the National Health Commission, nearly 250 million people in China were infected with Covid in the first 20 days of December – roughly 18% of the country’s population.
Experts have warned that as people in big cities return to their homes for the Lunar New Year next month, the virus could sweep through China’s vast rural areas, where vaccination rates are lower and medical resources are severely lacking.
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