Unapproved Covid-19 antiviral imports destroyed, while some overseas visitors face a $1350 bill for a course of the drugs
Strict limits on access to antiviral medication for Covid-19 have prompted some New Zealanders to try importing their own supplies.
Last year 1000 tablets were stopped at the border, and most were destroyed by Medsafe after those bringing them breached import requirements.
The two oral antiviral medicines available in New Zealand to treat Covid-19 in the community are Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir with ritonavir) and molnupiravir.
To be eligible, people must either have symptoms and test positive, or have symptoms and be a household contact of a case, plus they must also meet other criteria relating to age and medical conditions.
That rules out New Zealanders who do not have Covid-19, but are heading overseas and want to take a course of antivirals with them in case they fall ill.
When Customs intercepts prescription medicines sent by mail or brought into the country by travellers, it refers them to Medsafe, which seeks proof the intended recipient had a prescription from a New Zealand authorised prescriber entitling them to import the medicine.
Medsafe compliance branch manager Derek Fitzgerald said that so far, none of the Covid-19 drugs detected had been released.
The largest was a consignment of 480 molnupiravir tablets.
“All have been destroyed, except the most recent import which is still within its holding period to give the recipient an opportunity to respond.”
Fitzgerald said imports of unapproved medicine may be counterfeit, and there could be risks in terms of its effectiveness and quality.
The seven interceptions of paxlovid and molnupiravir have been tiny compared with more than 900 attempted personal imports of ivermectin referred to Medsafe last year.
The unapproved drug, used to de-worm livestock and to treat a very limited number of parasitic diseases in humans, was being brought in by individuals despite strong warnings from the Ministry of Health that it could cause serious harm if used to treat or prevent Covid-19.
In the past month 31,666 doses of antivirals have been dispensed, and Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand Covid-19 care in the community manager Daniel Hirst confirmed they were only available to treat infection, not for international travel.
Otago University senior lecturer in travel medicine Dr Jenny Visser said the merits of providing travellers with supplies of antivirals to take away with them in case they came down with Covid-19 overseas was an issue being debated internationally in travel medical circles.
If it was permitted, she said patients would have to be pre-screened because paxlovid, the most commonly used antiviral, interacts with lots of other drugs, “and some people get terrible side effects with it”.
Antivirals are free of charge for New Zealanders, and for UK and Australian visitors covered by reciprocal healthcare agreements, and all testing is free.
But visitors from other countries without reciprocal care agreements face a substantial charge for molnupiravir, the only antiviral classed as available for “private supply”.
Mt Maunganui pharmacist Carl Liu says a course of molnupiravir for those visitors, (who must still test positive), is $1350 and that price tag has proved a deterrent for the one or two who have enquired about purchasing the drug.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said 1000 tablets have been intercepted so far this year. This has been corrected to last year.