North Korea has ordered all medical schools in the country to start manufacturing and selling basic drugs to cover a shortage caused 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 source raw materials from China. North Korea and China closed the China-Korea border in January 2020 and suspended all trade.

Although limited trade between the countries has resumed, the lack of drug supply means that universities have been brought on stream to help meet demand.

“A pharmacy will operate at Pyongsong Medical University from today,” a source in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean service on Sept. 1 undercover anonymity for security reasons.

“The pharmacy will sell basic drugs made by the university,” she said. “They will sell traditional Korean medicines and new medicines…at a 20% discount from the market price.”

The pharmacy sells a traditional medicine called pedoksan, which is a herbal treatment for high fever or acute bronchitis. It also kills a kind of parasitic worm. The so-called “new drugs” are what North Koreans call synthetic fever reducers like aspirin and hand sanitizer.

All income generated from the school pharmacy will be used to purchase raw materials to manufacture more drugs and for running costs of the school, according to the source.

Under the old health care system in North Korea, drugs were manufactured by factories under the Ministry of Public Health and distributed to patients free of charge through drug management centers across the country. .

But the medical system began to crumble under the strain of the economic hardships of the 1990s, including the 1994-98 famine. From now on, treatments and medicines are only accessible to those who can afford them.

The medical university in Sinuiju, the town across the Yalu River border from Dandong in China, will operate a 24-hour pharmacy selling fever-relievers and laxatives, a resident told RFA under anonymous to speak freely.

“The drugs sold at the medical college pharmacy are made by students,” she said. “Paedoksan is produced by trainees who are about to graduate from the pharmacology program at Sinuiju Medical University. Interns in the New Drugs department make aspirin, glucose, and IVs.

“Using medical university pharmacies seems like a way for them to deal with a severe shortage of drugs,” 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 didn’t believe people were worried about the side effects of drugs made by the students, but were happy to have any medicine.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.