After testing positive for COVID-19 in early January, Sharon Li started taking capsules of Lianhua Qingwen, a traditional Chinese medicine banned in Australia.
- Some in the Chinese community have been stocking up on drugs to treat COVID-19 symptoms, despite them being illegal in Australia
- Lianhua Qingwen capsules were found on the shelves of Asian supermarkets in Melbourne
- The TGA has not approved the drug in Australia because it contains a key ingredient used to make methamphetamine
Ms Li ordered her medication on Chinese online shopping platform Taobao and shipped it to Australia via a third-party delivery provider.
“I heard that Lianhua Qingwen capsules are helpful in treating COVID,” Ms Li told the ABC.
“My symptoms were relatively mild, similar to a cold or flu.
“I used to take this medicine when I had a cold in China, so I bought it.”
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has not authorized the legal supply of the drug in Australia because it contains ephedra, a key ingredient used to make methamphetamine, commonly known as methamphetamine.
“Ephedra can pose serious patient safety risks, including cardiac toxicity, irreversible eye damage and severe blood sugar depletion,” a TGA spokesperson said.
Ms Li said she did not know Lianhua Qingwen was banned in Australia when she ordered it online.
It seems that Ms. Li is not the only one. The drug was in high demand by the Chinese community as a COVID treatment during the Omicron outbreak.
It has even been found stocked in Asian supermarkets in Melbourne.
Lianhua Qingwen’s maker, Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical, told the ABC that the company has never exported, sold or supplied the drug to Australia because it is not registered in the country and does not had no import license here.
What is Lianhua Qingwen?
Lianhua Qingwen was developed during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and it was widely used to treat colds in China without a prescription.
It is made from traditional Chinese herbal medicines including forsythia, Japanese honeysuckle flower, ephedra and isatis root.
The drug is supposed to detoxify the lungs and eliminate heat.
Hui Yang, associate professor of preventive medicine and general medicine at Monash University, told the ABC that traditional Chinese medicine has a long history and a strong base of public support in China.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Lianhua Qingwen has been approved by the National Medical Products Administration in China for “the treatment of mild symptoms of fever, cough and fatigue caused by the coronavirus”.
The TGA said it was aware of the traditional use of ephedra in Chinese medicine to treat conditions such as colds and asthma.
But in those cases, the use was “closely supervised by a qualified practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine (due to its toxicity),” the TGA added.
“Ephedra is not approved as a COVID-19 drug and should not be treated as such.”
In 2020, the Australian Border Force (ABF) seized approximately 1.3 million capsules containing ephedra.
That number has fallen to just under 145,000 in 2021, which the ABF says may be linked to the timing of Australia’s COVID-19 outbreaks.
ABF was unable to confirm the number of Lianhua Qingwen capsules.
Lianhua Qingwen in high demand in the Chinese community
Despite the ban, the ABC found that several Asian supermarkets in Melbourne had the drug on their shelves.
Some had also created WeChat groups for pre-orders.
Unlike the drug distributed in China, the capsules sold in Asian supermarkets in Melbourne had packaging written in English and did not have ephedra among the ingredients.
Xiaoxiong Zhou, Vice President of Brand Center of Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical, told the ABC: “The exported Lianhua Qingwen uses different packaging according to the regulations of different countries/regions, but there is no difference in Ingredients”.
He added that the drug had obtained registration approvals or sales licenses in 27 countries as of January 2022, but not in Australia.
Community Shares Tips for Getting Forbidden Capsules
There has reportedly been an increase in demand for Lianhua Qingwen in the Australian Chinese community due to the Omicron outbreak.
It is difficult to quantify the number of Lianhua Qingwen capsules in circulation in Australia, but the request has attracted the attention of local Chinese media.
Residents of Melbourne and Brisbane told Chinese state media Global Times they had stockpiled the drug.
Discussions on WeChat also popped up with people sharing information about delivery companies and whether the product will be taxed.
“Basically, it will not be deducted. If you don’t buy 100 boxes, if you pack the medicine with clothes, make it less visible at customs, 10 boxes will still be fine,” wrote a WeChat user. .
“If you buy 10 boxes, it’s only $20. If you’re checked [by customs]that means you lose $20, and it doesn’t matter.”
David, a Melbourne resident who asked that his surname not be published, bought four packets of Lianhua Qingwen capsules from an Asian supermarket WeChat group after testing positive for COVID-19 in January.
But the shipment was delayed due to the large quantity purchased through the band and he had recovered by the time his order arrived.
He had paid extra to order through the WeChat group, but said the price was justified.
This demand has pushed the cost of the drug in Australia up to 10 times more than the original price in China, according to Sydney resident Sandy Wong.
The market price of Lianhua Qingwen capsules in China is 12.8 yuan ($2.80), but in Australia they sell for around $29.
“As a person from China, I have no prejudice about this medicine. But don’t you think it’s disgusting that these sellers are making such a huge profit using the excuse of ‘Chinese helping Chinese’? “, Ms. Wong said.
Third-party delivery companies, such as the one used by Ms Li, have promoted deals to send the drug to Australia.
Ms. Li said she was able to buy 10 boxes for less than $100 online.
On Little Red Book, a Chinese social media platform, there are at least 11 express companies claiming to offer a “direct between China and Australia, duty paid and 7 day delivery” service.
Both the ABF and the TGA have warned that importing, selling or supplying illegal drugs could result in 25 years in prison or a fine of over $1 million.
“The TGA uses a series of enforcement actions to combat the illegal importation, supply and advertisement of unapproved therapeutic products, including the seizure and destruction of products, as well as warning letters and fines “said the spokesperson.
The TGA has also advised consumers to exercise extreme caution when considering buying medicines, including dietary supplements and herbal preparations, over the internet.
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