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China's Covid 'chaos': How a shortage of fever drugs is sparking a global run on medicines

Hong Kong/Taipei(CNN) An unprecedented wave of Covid infections in China has triggered widespread drug shortages, as people scramble to buy fever medicines and painkillers to alleviate flu-like symptoms.

The panic buying has spread outside mainland China's borders, with the generic versions of Tylenol and Advil sold out at drugstores in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and as far afield as Australia, prompting some local pharmacies to limit sales. Even home remedies such as canned peaches are being snapped up by people looking for ways to fight Covid.

The situation mirrors shortages seen in the United States and Canada over children's painkillers, which are in high demand because of the proliferation of respiratory viruses.

The health chief of Hong Kong, a special administrative region with a separate system of government from the Chinese mainland, urged the public to refrain from hoarding cold medicines, asking them "not to overact."

At five drugstores in the commercial district of Wan Chai, the drug Panadol, the local brand name for Tylenol, has been sold out for two weeks, salespersons told CNN. One salesman, who gave his name as Simon, said the shortage was due to buyers purchasing in bulk to send to their friends and relatives in the mainland.

When his store does manage to get hold of some supply, he is able to provide delivery to longstanding customers in China through a complex process that takes about two weeks, costing between HK$150 ($19) to HK$200 ($26) per 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds).

"We send the drugs by mail to Macao, where our agents pick it up and then hand deliver it across the border to Zhuhai," he said, adding that the couriers must quarantine once they arrive on the mainland. Macao is another special administrative region of China, while Zhuhai is a southern mainland Chinese city which it borders.

Current rules don't allow medicines to be mailed directly from Hong Kong to mainland China, according to the salespersons. Sending agents directly from Hong Kong, which also shares a land border with the mainland, isn't feasible due to a lack of available agents, Simon said.

In Macao, the drug regulator ordered pharmacies last week to limit purchases of pain relievers, fever medicines and antigen test kits. The order came after residents complained about empty shelves when they were looking for cold and fever medicines, according to Exmoo News, a local newspaper.

Lack of supply in Taiwan, Australia

China is grappling with its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic, with analysts from investment bank Nomura describing the situation as "nationwide chaos."

"In all of this, one big question is whether the current reopening was planned," said analysts from Capital Economics in a separate note. "It seems that the wider state apparatus had not seen a shift coming."

On Monday, national authorities started announcing the first Covid-related deaths since the easing of pandemic restrictions on December 7. Only a few deaths have been reported, even as social media posts have pointed to a surge in demand at Beijing's funeral homes and long lines at the city's hospitals and fever clinics.

With health services overwhelmed, Chinese citizens have turned to personal networks around the world to secure Covid supplies.

A CNN journalist visited a dozen drugstores in various districts across Taipei on Tuesday night, without managing to find a single box of Panadol. Mr Lin, a shop assistant at the Kawaki Drug Store in the center of the city, said demand surged over the past two weeks.

"We have always faced a supply shortage of Panadol since the Covid-19 outbreak, but the situation has become a lot more acute," he said. "Some customers told us that they wanted to send the pills to their relatives and friends in China, given the situation there."

I Li-chen, a pharmacist in Taipei's Xinyi district, said her drugstore had received many questions about Panadol pills recently.

"Some people wanted to buy the pills because they wanted to send them to relatives in China, while others needed them because they had to visit China soon," she said.

Even as far as Australia, which has cities with large populations of ethnic Chinese residents, some concerned Chinese Australians have begun sending over-the-counter cold and flu medicines to family members back in China, according to ABC News.

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