Unsurprisingly, similar scams are now very common in China, and in the days since my news with Jin was published, I have spoken to several Chinese who have fallen for the scam after searching for Paxlovid on social media.
Ms. Liao, a Chinese woman living in Shenzhen who asked us to use only her last name, despaired when her 54-year-old father was admitted to hospital with COVID-19 on December 28 and nearly lost consciousness the next day. When doctors suggested Paxlovid but told her the hospital had none left, she posted on the popular social media platform Xiaohongshu pleading for help.
Soon, people started messaging her saying they could sell her Paxlovid. One account claims it’s available in a Pfizer version (as opposed to generics made in other countries) and that it ships the same day. Without hesitation, she paid the asking price of 3,600 yuan, or about $530.
However, the promised medicine never came and the account she paid for was later canceled. She reported the incident to the police but was told the chances of getting her money back were low. Fortunately, Liao’s father has stabilized and no longer needs to take medicine.
Liao was not the only victim. Another Hubei native told me she met a scammer on Weibo who later found out he had scammed at least 30 people out of nearly $30,000. Victims formed a group chat to coordinate what they could do, and even after being reported multiple times, the scammer’s account remained active on Weibo. It’s still releasing photos of Paxlovid, looking for new targets.
Even those lucky enough to find sellers who aren’t scammers still have to deal with other forms of deception — such as counterfeit drugs and theft (since the package is labeled with the name of the drug). Some have turned to generic versions of Paxlovid, such as Primovir or Paxista, which are made by Indian pharmaceutical companies but have questionable efficacy; some Chinese labs have examined samples of these generics but found no active ingredients.
The first is the sheer challenge of accessing Paxlovid that makes all this fraudulent activity possible. Many Chinese people feel fear and anxiety, and some may have put too much faith in the power of Paxlovid. Most of them don’t understand who should take Paxlovid or how to take it without risk, but they just want to find anything that can help a little bit.
Of course, this isn’t the first time scammers have taken advantage of desperate people. In China and elsewhere, online scammers stand ready to profit from fear and urgency. But the question remains whether social media platforms such as Twitter and Weibo are doing enough to curb such activity and regain users’ trust.