The alarming fake drug business that grows due to the covid-19 pandemic

Fake drugs not only don't offer relief to patients, they can worsen their health. 

The same week that the World Health Organization (WHO) began to discuss the outbreak of the new coronavirus as a pandemic, a security operation was carried out in 90 countries, many of them in Latin America.

According to the WHO, trade in counterfeit drugs - which includes drugs that may be contaminated, expired, or contain the wrong or nonexistent active ingredient - amounts to more than $ 30 billion in low and middle-income countries. Fake drugs not only don't offer relief to patients, they can worsen their health.
The alarming fake drug business that grows due to the covid-19 pandemic
Interpol agents and national authorities carried out Operation Pangea XIII, which masterminded the arrest of 121 people and the seizure of apocryphal medicines and of medical equipment of low quality valued at US $ 14 million.
From Asia, Africa and even America, as well as on Internet pages, a lucrative black market in medical devices, especially drugs, has flourished due to the worldwide emergence of covid-19.
According to the WHO, trade in counterfeit drugs - which includes drugs that may be contaminated, expired, or contain the wrong or nonexistent active ingredient - amounts to more than $ 30 billion in low and middle-income countries.
This prompted the world body to issue an alert after detecting ‘an increasing number of counterfeit medical products that claim to prevent, detect, treat or cure covid-19.’
Millions of units of illicit drugs were seized worldwide in March.
Added to this are cases of shortages of drugs used for other diseases that some authorities have identified as possible drugs to treat patients with the virus.
A couple of them are chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, repeatedly mentioned by US President Donald Trump as possible medical tools to fight the pandemic.

Operation Pangea

Between March 3 and 10, already in the midst of a pandemic, Interpol agents and local authorities confiscated 34,000 counterfeit masks and 4.4 million units of drugs, all worth US $14 million in Operation Pangea XIII.

In addition, they detected 2,000 internet sites offering these products and many more claiming that they could ‘cure’ the new coronavirus.

Thousands of low-quality or apocryphal masks were seized by Interpol.

Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock said that this illicit market during the health crisis caused by the new coronavirus ‘shows a total disregard for people's lives.’
In addition, specialists such as Pernette Bourdillion Esteve, from the WHO team on counterfeit medical products, warns that these not only do not help treat diseases.
‘In the worst case, they will actively cause harm, because they could be contaminated with something toxic.’

The supply chain

The global pharmaceutical industry is a more than a trillion-dollar business that has been affected by the covid-19 emergency.

The black market is seeking a share of the global pharmaceutical industry valued at $ 1 trillion.

On the one hand, the covid-19 emergency has led many families around the world to stock up on basic medicines, whether or not they are to treat the new coronavirus.
At the same time, two of the world's largest producers of medical supplies, China and India, have undergone extensive quarantines, causing global demand to outstrip supply.
Pharmaceutical companies in India told the BBC that they are operating at 50-60% of their normal capacity.
‘There is probably nothing more globalized than medicine,’ says Esteve.
Operation Pangea was carried out in 90 countries, many of them in Latin America.
Producers and suppliers are also having problems because the raw materials for making tablets are now so expensive that some companies simply cannot afford to continue their work.
A producer in Pakistan says he used to buy raw materials for an antimalarial drug called hydroxychloroquine for around $ 100 a kilo. But today, the cost has risen to $ 1,150.
That is the ideal scenario that smugglers have found to launch their illegal offensive.
‘When supply does not meet demand, an environment is created in which lower quality or counterfeit drugs will try to meet that demand,’ Esteve says.

What happens in Latin America?

Although health regulators in several Latin American countries consulted by BBC have not detected an increase in the black market for medicines, they acknowledge that the risk of a wave of these products is latent.
Central and South American countries participated in Operation Pangea of ​​Interpol and national authorities.
Operation Pangea XIII in Costa Rica, for example, managed to seize more than 11,000 units of illegal products, including medicines and alleged medicinal products worth almost US $ 125,000, the Ministry of Health said.
In addition, a laboratory in San José was detected that ‘manufactured medicines without sanitary registration, including sensitive products’ for the health of consumers.
In Colombia, the Deputy Minister of Public Health, Luis Alexander Moscoso, said that ‘alleged irregularities’ have been detected regarding the introduction of products that do not meet health requirements.
‘The government has sent warning messages, established guidelines and carried out operations to identify anomalous events,’ he said.
Healthcare workers risk being left unprotected by products that do not offer the necessary protection.
In Argentina and Mexico, however, their respective health authorities in the matter indicated to that they had not detected the appearance or circulation of drugs to treat covid-19 on the black market.
Other countries did not respond to requests for information, but the Ibero-American Drug Authorities Network, in which 22 countries in the region participate, explained that it has activated the FALFRA system.
Through it, each country reports cases of ‘counterfeit and fraudulent drugs detected and marketed within legal and/or illegal channels.’
But he warns: ‘National actions are usually not completely effective since, being a global problem, the fight against this problem depends on international cooperation.’
Fake antimalarial drugs were discovered in circulation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Given this, the WHO has called for ‘greater vigilance’ to the authorities of each country to prevent the distribution of counterfeit medical products, both on the streets and on the internet.
‘Buyers and consumers must be especially cautious with these online scams and pay attention when buying any medical product, whether online or not,’ a representative from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) told BBC.


The global supply of antimalarials has been under threat in recent weeks.
Since President Donald Trump began referring to the potential of chloroquine and a related derivative, hydroxychloroquine, as a cure for covid-19, there has been a global increase in demand for this drug for malaria and lupus, among other diseases.

Hydroxychloroquine has been used for many years against malaria.

In Mexico, the undersecretary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, said at the end of March that there was a great demand that exhausted the stocks of the drug mentioned by Trump.
‘So, unfortunately, that led to a shortage in private pharmacies of these drugs, and we know that there are people with immune diseases who need them today,’ he said.
The WHO has repeatedly said that there is no definitive evidence that chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine works against the virus that causes covid-19.
‘We call on people and countries to refrain from using therapies that have not been shown to be effective in treating covid-19,’ said the agency's director, Tedros Adhanom.
‘The history of medicine is riddled with examples of drugs that worked on paper, or in a test tube, but did not work in humans or even were harmful,’ he warned.

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