(Bloomberg) -- Chinese citizens are stocking up on antiviral flu drugs, sending e-commerce sales volume up over 100-fold from a year ago, as a spike in infections triggers panic and hoarding following the country’s chaotic exit from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The medicine, sold under the generic name oseltamivir, saw sales volume surge to about 533,100 units in the first 13 days of March on the Chinese e-commerce platforms Taobao and Tmall, according to the analytics tracking site Liandanlu. The daily average volume jumped 129-fold from a year ago when aggressive Covid measures limited all types of infections and has nearly tripled from February’s already elevated levels. 

“People are more likely to panic following the massive Covid outbreak earlier,” said Wang Ruizhe, a Shanghai-based healthcare analyst with Capital Securities Corp. “That combined with a relatively low stock of the antiviral led to a temporary supply-demand mismatch and price hikes.”

The rush for medicine underscores the high levels of anxiety and distrust in China, where hospitals were overwhelmed and treatment was hard to access after the government unexpectedly lifted all of its Covid curbs at the end of 2022. As influenza cases picked up after socializing resumed, people hurried to get the prescription pills in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the Covid desperation. 

“It seems some people are hoarding the antiviral this time,” Wang said. “The spread of flu among children is fanning anxiety among parents. The impact of the earlier Covid wave may have also fueled concern.”

Because Tamiflu is most effective when taken quickly after infection, most newly diagnosed patients who need the pills would be offered them immediately. Thus, hospital sales tend to reflect the real demand for treatment, while the surge in e-commerce points to more precautionary purchases, he said.

It hasn’t been easy. Supplies started to run out in February, with empty shelves reminiscent of the frenzy triggered by the explosive Covid outbreak that accompanied the country’s reopening. Some shops on Taobao remain out-of-stock, while others are limiting purchases to one per person. 

Flu cases, meanwhile, are skyrocketing. The positivity rate — the number of people who find out they are infected after getting tested — was 42% in the week beginning March 5, up from 25% a week earlier, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in its Covid surveillance report on Saturday. 

It’s the opposite for Covid, with the positivity rate falling to 3.8% from 5.1%.

Flu Cases Surge in China, Leaving Antivirals in Short Supply

The hunt for medicine is widespread. Online searches for the word “oseltamivir” on China’s popular search engine Baidu skyrocketed to the highest level since at least 2011, suggesting people are trying to get more information about the drug. The peak interest level is about four times the seasonal highs seen prior to Covid. 


--With assistance from Dong Lyu.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.