China has imported “hundreds of thousands” of boxes of Merck’s Covid-19 antiviral treatment molnupiravir and they could be available by the end of next week, a senior executive with Sinopharm Group said. The oral drug will be sold under the brand name Lagevrio at a cost of 1,500 yuan (US$220) for 40 pills, Tianjin’s medical purchasing centre said in a statement on Tuesday. The announcement came after China’s national health insurance authority on Sunday said Pfizer’s antiviral treatment for Covid-19, Paxlovid, had not made it onto the public health scheme because the price – at 1,890 yuan a box – was “too high”. Pfizer said locally produced Paxlovid pills would be available in the next few months . Molnupiravir has been approved for emergency use in mainland China by the National Medical Products Administration, to treat mild to moderate infections among adults at high risk of severe illness. It is also included in the country’s latest Covid-19 treatment plan. State-owned drug maker Sinopharm reached a deal with Merck in September that gives it the exclusive right to import and market the pill. The two pharmaceutical firms also agreed to evaluate the possibility of a technology transfer that could facilitate production and commercialisation of the drug by Sinopharm subsidiary China National Biotec Group. How do the two Covid-19 oral drugs molnupiravir and Paxlovid work? Cai Maisong, vice-president of Sinopharm, said the drug could hit the market before the Lunar New Year on January 22, but it still needed to be registered with the Chinese regulator because it was being sent from different countries. “The main thing at the moment is the [approval] procedures. The difficulties at operational level can all be overcome,” Cai told Shanghai news website ThePaper.cn on Tuesday. Cai said the first shipment of “hundreds of thousands” of boxes of molnupiravir was received in Shanghai a week ago and more were arriving every day. “We will continue to import [the drug],” Cai was quoted as saying. He said the pills would be distributed to large hospitals first. It was up to the regulator whether the drug would be made available for online prescriptions via telehealth consultations, Cai added. Molnupiravir is the third Covid-19 antiviral and second foreign treatment to get approval for emergency use in China. Pfizer’s Paxlovid was approved in February last year and the Chinese drug Azvudine, made by Genuine Biotech, received emergency approval in July. State media has reported that both Paxlovid and Azvudine are being used in hospitals in some Chinese cities. Paxlovid has been in short supply amid widespread medical shortages caused by a surge in cases after China abruptly abandoned its zero-Covid policy in early December.