Pfizer expects to start making COVID drug Paxlovid in China in 3 to 4 months

Pfizer's Paxlovid tablets – an oral treatment for COVID-19. (Photo: CFP)

U.S. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said it could start making its COVID-19 antiviral drug Paxlovid in China through a local partner in as soon as three to four months, Financial Times (FT) reported on Tuesday.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer's chief executive, said on Monday that the company has an agreement for local manufacturing of Paxlovid in China, and its local contract manufacturer was gearing up to begin production of the drug.

Pfizer signed a deal with Chinese drug maker Zhejiang Huahai in August 2022 to produce Paxlovid to meet the demands of Chinese patients.

"We were calculating that this will take us all the way to the end of the year to be able to have local manufacturing, but with the progress that I see and the effort for the Chinese authorities to clear the production, that will happen way earlier," Bourla was quoted as saying at the JPMorgan's healthcare conference in San Francisco.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it comes in three, four months," he added.

In reply to an inquiry from an investor about the cooperation on Tuesday, Zhejiang Huahai said that the company is actively working with Pfizer to accelerate the preparation work for local manufacturing of Paxlovid, so as to ensure sufficient supply of medicine in the Chinese market.

Demand surge in China

Paxlovid, which is usually prescribed to treat mild to moderate COVID-19 cases with a high risk of developing severe disease, was approved for use in China in February 2022.

So far, the drugs sold to China have been shipped from Pfizer's manufacturing sites outside the country.

In 2022, the company shipped only thousands of courses of the treatment to China, Bourla said. But in the past couple of weeks, that number increased to millions, according to him.

There has been a surge of infections across the country since China relaxed its COVID-19 restrictions in late December.

Paxlovid not included in China's insurance drug list

Because of its high price, China would not include Paxlovid in its list of COVID-19 medicines covered by basic medical insurance, the country's National Healthcare Security Administration (NHSA) said on Sunday after a reportedly lengthy negotiation with Pfizer.

A box of Paxlovid, used for a single course of treatment, was originally priced at 2,300 yuan ($339) in China and later lowered to 1,890 yuan. During Sunday's negotiation, Pfizer did not lower its price significantly beyond the 1,890 yuan it currently charges, Chinese media Caixin reported, citing unnamed sources.

However, Paxlovid will be covered by medical insurance until March 31 under the terms of an emergency deal.

People with medical insurance can buy the drugs on the list at a fraction of their market price, with the government covering the rest under China's reimbursement system.