North Korea has ordered all medical schools in the country to begin making and selling basic medicines to cover a shortage brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, sources in the country told RFA.
Drug stocks in the country have dwindled during the pandemic as factories struggle to procure raw materials from China. North Korea and China closed the Sino-Korean border in January 2020 and suspended all trade.
Though limited trade between the countries has resumed, a lack of supplies for medicine means that the universities have been pressed into service to help meet demand.
“A pharmacy will be operating at the Pyongsong University of Medicine starting from today,” a source in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service Sept. 1 on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“The pharmacy will sell basic medicines which the university is manufacturing,” she said. “They will sell Korean traditional medicines and new medicines … at a 20 percent discount from the market price.”
The pharmacy sells a traditional medicine called paedoksan, which is an herbal treatment for high fever or acute bronchitis. It also kills a kind of parasitic worm. The so-called “new medicines” are what North Koreans call synthetic fever reducers like aspirin, and hand sanitizer.
All the income generated from the school pharmacy will be used to purchase raw materials to make more medicine and for the school’s operating costs, according to the source.
Under the old health care system in North Korea, medicines were made by factories under the Ministry of Public Health and given free of charge to patients through drug management centers across the country.
But the medical system began to collapse under the strain of the economic hardships in the 1990s, including the 1994-1998 famine. Now treatment and medicines are available only to those who can afford it.
The medical university in Sinuiju, the city across the Yalu River border from China’s Dandong, will operate a 24-hour pharmacy selling fever reducers and laxatives, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“The medicines sold at the medical university pharmacy are manufactured by students,” she said. “Paedoksan is produced by trainees who are about to graduate from the pharmacology program at Sinuiju Medical University. The trainees in the department of new medicines make aspirin, glucose and IVs.
“Using the medical university pharmacies seems to be one way for them to cope with a serious shortage of medicines,” she said. “The number of deaths has increased due to the increasing number of suspected COVID-19 patients and the spread of waterborne diseases during the rainy season.”
The source said she did not believe that people are concerned about the side effects from the medicines made by students but are happy to have any medicine at all.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.