[Editorial] Bracing for Covid-19 protraction in China

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[Editorial] Bracing for Covid-19 protraction in China

Covid-19 is spreading fast in China after the government relaxed some of its notoriously strict quarantine policy. Fever patients surged by 16 times in a week in Beijing. Patients with similar influenza symptoms are also on a rapid rise. Demand for over-the-counter flu medicines, including fever pills, have become explosive due to difficulties of getting treatment and prescription medications. In South Korea, new Covid-19 cases soared to 86,852 on Tuesday, the highest since Sept. 14. The number has been increasing since last week.

Korea must contain the rise at home and ready against the spill-over from the situation in China. Eased quarantine will lead to a spike in the outbreak and a stronnger demand for flu and fever remedies. China could move to restrict raw materials for cold relief medications to domestic producers and reduce exports. South Korea relies on China, India, the U.S. and Japan to produce medications for cold related symptoms. There are no suppliers of raw materials at home.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety last week took a preemptive action of seeking raw materials from China on behalf of Korean drugmakers. The ministry on Dec. 1 ordered 18 pharmaceutical companies to increase output and relaxed its regulation to enable them to use raw materials from multiple suppliers instead of one. The ministry estimates Korean drugmakers have secured three-month’s stock for flu and cold drugs.

But the worst is not over. The biggest worry is prolongation of the Covid-19 crisis in China. Korea should seek out replacement vendors in India and the U.S. It could still face a shortage of raw materials due to high reliance on China. Production cost could go up as Chinese materials are the cheapest. Securing raw materials cannot be solely done by drugmakers. Korea must mobilize diplomatic channel.

Authorities must reexamine cold symptom medications that can be taken for granted during normal times. Acetaminophen, an essential ingredient for temporary relief for common cold and flu symptoms, cost insurance charge of just 51 won ($0.04) per 650 milligrams. As it is so cheap, producers are reluctant to increase production.

The situation with the intravenous (IV) pain and fever relief solution is no different. The basic IV solution (with 5 percent of Dextrose) is priced at 1,500 to 1,600 won per liter, which would be cheaper than 2 liters of drinkable water costing 1,700 won. Only three companies make them as a result. As expansion in the production lines of IV solution and cold pills is difficult, they are operated around the clock. Public health authorities must reexamine their policy of stocking essential medications for a long-term supply and reassess the cost system to encourage production.
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