BEIJING—Desperate for a cure for the new coronavirus spreading quickly across the country, Chinese families are flocking online to search for experimental remedies that may be effective against the virus, despite government warnings that no proven treatment has been found.
Among the most sought-after drugs is Kaletra, an antiretroviral for HIV made by U.S. pharmaceutical giant
that blocks the enzymes some viruses need to replicate. Relatives of
joined a scramble for the drug, known in Mandarin as Kelizhi, after the 57-year-old developed a fever and was diagnosed with a lung infection last month. Mr. Chen, who lives at the epicenter of the outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, was turned away at overrun hospitals that had run out of diagnostic kits for the coronavirus, pushing his son online for help. “Does anyone in Wuhan have Kelizhi?” the younger Mr. Chen wrote on China’s
-like Weibo social-media platform. “I’m begging everyone. I will be responsible for all the consequences.”
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The outbreak has infected more than 24,000 people and killed at least 490, the vast majority in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. Chinese medical researchers are optimistic about Kaletra’s potential to treat the coronavirus in part because it was previously effective in combating severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, also caused by a coronavirus that originated in China. Registry records show that researchers in China have applied to test more than 10 drugs on virus patients, including the antimalarial chloroquine, HIV antiretroviral darunavir and several flu medicines. Wuhan has designated roughly two dozen hospitals for the treatment of the coronavirus and has rushed to build or repurpose several other facilities to treat the most severe cases. That still leaves thousands of confirmed and suspected patients in self-quarantine either at home or in hotels, with limited access to doctors. And with the city’s hospitals overcrowded and short on experimental drugs, some who suspect they may be infected are now taking their treatment into their own hands.
About 3,700 passengers and crew on a cruise ship docked in Japan are being quarantined on the vessel after 10 people tested positive for the novel coronavirus. A passenger talked about his time aboard the Diamond Princess. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images
It isn’t unusual for ailing people in China to turn to black or gray markets for drugs. As in the U.S., the prices of many cutting-edge medications such as cancer drugs are out of reach for regular patients, leading some to try to seek out cheaper generics through unapproved channels, or even to mix their own from raw materials purchased online. As the Wuhan outbreak picked up speed in late January, China’s National Health Commission warned that no antiviral medications had been found to be effective, but nevertheless suggested a mix of the antiretroviral drugs lopinavir and ritonavir, the same combination used in Kaletra. The following day,
a respiratory specialist at Peking University First Hospital, said he took the two drugs after becoming infected with the new virus while treating patients in Wuhan. “Many patients generally need more than a week or two weeks for their condition to improve,” Dr. Wang told state media. His temperature began to drop within a day of taking the Kaletra mix, he said. Taking powerful medication without a doctor’s supervision is dangerous, but the reports of Dr. Wang’s success convinced the Chen family to risk it. Mr. Chen had recently undergone 12 rounds of chemotherapy for rectal cancer. The new coronavirus has been particularly fatal for older men with other medical conditions. “My dad is very weak. Chemo destroyed his immune system,” said his son, who declined to give his name. The challenge was finding the drug. China’s government typically only supplies Kaletra to HIV patients with a doctor’s prescription. Chicago-based AbbVie said last month that it had donated about $2 million worth of the drug as an “experimental option” in response to a request by Chinese health authorities. But access was limited even inside Wuhan hospitals. Another Wuhan resident with the surname Chen, who is unrelated to Chen Ruoping, said her 32-year-old husband who was treated for the virus at Wuhan No. 9 Hospital was denied the drug. “We requested Kaletra but doctors told us it was under strict controls,” she said. A worker answering the phone at the hospital’s pharmacy said Wednesday that its stock of Kaletra was small and that it was only being administered to patients with severe symptoms. Asked to comment, AbbVie referred to an earlier statement from last week promising to supply enough Kaletra for both the national HIV/AIDS program and the fight against the new coronavirus. The National Health Commission didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. For many virus patients, unofficial channels are the only option. One supplier is an HIV patient based in the city of Zhengzhou, known online as “Brother Squirrel,” who runs a platform for fellow HIV-positive people to discuss medications. After seeing news that the drug could have the potential to treat the Wuhan virus, he said he called on users to donate extra supplies. “I didn’t know there was such a huge demand,” said the supplier, who only gave his surname, Li. Within a week, Mr. Li said, he had collected enough for 100 patients and was giving it away free, with priority given to infected doctors. Selling prescription drugs without a license is illegal in China, but donating them isn’t, Mr. Li explained. He said he recently ordered 428 packs of the generic version from India, where prices are rising quickly. Sellers have been offering Kaletra for between 1,000 and 5,000 yuan ($142-$714) for each pack of 120 pills on Xianyu, a secondhand online marketplace owned by e-commerce giant
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.,
equal to about one month’s treatment. Xianyu removed the listings shortly after The Wall Street Journal contacted Alibaba for comment. “The Xianyu marketplace strictly prohibits illicit and illegal behavior by third-party sellers on its platforms,” a Xianyu spokesman said in a statement. “We will also continue to take action against sellers who violate laws or our product-listing policy.” HIV patients can get Kaletra free at designated HIV/AIDS hospitals, or for around $100 a pack with a prescription, according to Mr. Li.
the director of a Beijing-based nonprofit advocacy group for people living with HIV, said he was preserving his supplies of the drug for HIV patients but gave in to one request from a coronavirus patient in Hubei. “He begged so much, it was almost like he was kneeling down in front of me, so I gave him a pack,” Mr. Bai said. People tend to rush to hoard any medical treatment mentioned in the state media, Mr. Bai said. A similar dynamic has swirled around shuanghuanglian, a traditional Chinese cold remedy that China’s official Xinhua News Agency, citing experts, said was effective in curbing growth of the new virus. Within hours, photos proliferated on social media of people standing in long lines to buy the herbal liquid, made with honeysuckle, forsythia and a type of flowering mint known as skullcaps. The following day, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece newspaper, the People’s Daily, tried to calm the frenzy, saying on its official Weibo account that the remedy wasn’t a cure or treatment for the virus. But by then the country’s inventory had already been sold out. Health authorities are likewise trying to damp enthusiasm for Kaletra and its generic equivalents, pointing to possible side-effects like liver damage and allergic reactions. On Monday, Chen Ruoping secured a donation of 30 Kaletra pills, enough for seven days, from a kindhearted stranger in Wuhan, his son said. Following a suggestion the family read about in a news story online, Mr. Chen combined the dosage of Kaletra with the influenza medication Tamiflu. After one day on the cocktail, the younger Mr. Chen said, his father’s blood-oxygen level had risen to 80 from 70—still below normal, but at least an improvement. —Josh Chin and Fanfan Wang
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