Covid-19: Kiwis search for banned Chinese drugs as customs seize 235,000 tablets

A herbal medicine approved in China to treat Covid-19 symptoms is sought after by Chinese Kiwis, despite being banned in New Zealand.

Lianhua Qingwen (连花清瘟) was used during the epidemic of Sars, another coronavirus, in China in 2002-2004 and its use was encouraged by the Chinese chief of the expert group of the National Commission of the Health for Covid-19, Nanshan Zhong, since the start of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of doses of Lianhua Qingwen have been seized by New Zealand Customs since 2020.

Lianhua Qingwen, a herbal medicine used for flu symptoms, was sought after by Chinese Kiwis during the Omicron outbreak.  (File photo)

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Lianhua Qingwen, a herbal medicine used for flu symptoms, was sought after by Chinese Kiwis during the Omicron outbreak. (File photo)

The product is authorized in more than 20 countries, including Canada, Russia and Kuwait.

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However, a Department of Health spokesperson said it contained ephedra – a controlled drug – and its use and supply was illegal in New Zealand.

Medsafe warned against its use as a medicine, and in particular for the treatment or prevention of Covid-19, he said.

Data from the New Zealand Customs Service shows an increase in seizures of Lianhua Qingwen, matching the upsurge in cases in New Zealand.

Between November 2021 and February 2022, there were 128 incidents of the product being seized at the border.

Since May 2020, customs have seized 235,393 Lianhua Qingwen pills, capsules or sachets.

Things saw the product being marketed by logistics companies and individuals on social media app The Little Red Book (小红书).

An article by Chinese company Wanshida International Logistics on the Little Red Book said it could send everyday items and medicine to New Zealand for $14 a kilogram.

The message did not mention Lianhua Qingwen, but used a photograph showing boxes of the product. It received 95 comments.

One person asked if Lianhua Qingwen could enter New Zealand and was told “yes”.

When asked if it sold Lianhua Qingwen and if it knew the product was illegal in New Zealand, the company replied “we don’t sell that”.

Things asked why he posted pictures of the product and answered people’s questions about the product. The company has not yet responded.

Another person posted on a Skykiwi forum in late February asking where to buy Lianhua Qingwen in New Zealand. The post received over 3300 views and several offers.

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Meanwhile, a spokesman for Tong Ren Tang, a Chinese medicine retail chain in New Zealand, said it was not selling Lianhua Qingwen due to the bans.

“Everything we have is imported legally… [but]I know it sells in the local market,” he said.

“In our meetings, our branches have reported that customers frequently request this drug.”

Aucklander’s Helen Ho, who has worked in the Chinese medicine industry for 20 years, said she strongly advises people against taking medicine “recklessly” obtained through unofficial channels.

“If it comes from the black market and you take it without any expert advice, you should think about the risks,” she said.

“The more popular the drug, the more likely there are counterfeits.”

Epidemiologist Lifeng Zhou advises against the use of Lianhua Qingwen.

Provided / Stuff

Epidemiologist Lifeng Zhou advises against the use of Lianhua Qingwen.

Ho said Chinese medicine should be taken based on each individual’s health circumstances, with expert advice.

Epidemiologist and Public Health Association of New Zealand board member Lifeng Zhou said he was against people buying and using Lianhua Qingwen.

Zhou said people should have confidence in New Zealand’s treatment plan for Covid-19 and be assured they would receive the correct care if admitted to hospital.

“It is a positive thing that the Chinese are aware of protecting our health and are interested in traditional Chinese medicine – I have no objection to this. But on the other hand, we should also follow the legal requirements drug use in New Zealand,” he said.

The Adverse Reaction Monitoring Center (CARM) said he had not received any adverse reactions suspected of being caused by Lianhua Qingwen.

However, he added that this could be due to low or no use in New Zealand, or a lack of understanding that adverse effects could be reported.