Covid Crisis Boosts Indian Trade In Fake Drugs
As India is engulfed by a second wave of coronavirus infections, which is sweeping through major cities, its people have rushed to the black market to buy drugs to treat.
Neighborhood WhatsApp groups in the capital of New Delhi are buzzing with urgent calls for sellers of everything from oxygen to remdesivir, an antiviral used in India to treat Covid-19.
In Pune, a city in the hard-hit state of Maharashtra, four people were arrested this month for selling fake vials of remdesivir for Rs 35,000 ($ 464), well above the official 2000 price cap. Rs (27 USD) for the genuine product. .
Police said the men sold at least seven vials filled with liquid paracetamol to a relative of a coronavirus patient. Further south, in Mysuru, Karnataka state, a nurse from a private hospital was arrested for selling vials of remdesivir that had been filled with antibiotics and saline.
“At times like these, where you see high numbers for tocilizumab – an arthritis drug – and remdesivir, this is a ripe area for people to come up with this stuff and put labels on it,” says Dinesh Thakur, a former pharmaceutical executive who works as a public health activist in the United States.
According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that one in ten medical products in low- and middle-income countries is substandard or falsified. Unregulated websites, which allow people to buy drugs without a prescription, make these products available around the world.
Countries that have weak governance or are affected by war suffer the consequences. Counterfeit malaria drugs in Africa, the continent with the highest proportion of counterfeit or substandard drugs, hamper efforts to fight the disease, according to a 2017 study published in The Lancet, a medical journal.
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, said India is playing the role of ‘pharmacy in the world’ due to its extensive production of drugs and vaccines to fight the coronavirus. But India is also the world’s largest producer of fake drugs, according to a study by the OECD and the EU’s Intellectual Property Office.
Covid-19 presented a unique opportunity for commerce to flourish. In the first week of March 2020, Interpol reported an 18% increase in seizures of unauthorized antiviral drugs and a 100% increase in seizures of unauthorized chloroquine, the antimalarial drug endorsed by former US President Donald Trump. .
“We are already starting to see falsified Covid products, but the real danger is vaccines,” says Nakul Pasricha, managing director of Pharma Secure, a company that offers drug verification technology to pharmaceutical companies in India. “Scarcity breeds falsification and counterfeiting, that’s just a fact.”
India and Turkey have large distribution networks for illegal drugs, says Todd Ratcliffe, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Security Institute, a non-profit trade association formed to tackle the problem of counterfeit drugs.
Ratcliffe, who worked for more than two decades at the FBI, says the networks span continents. “We find an Indian seller [and] a buyer who sends payments to Hong Kong, then the order will be fulfilled from a product purchased in a Turkish market which is then shipped via a location in New Delhi, ”says Ratcliffe. “It’s quite complicated.”
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He adds that while China is still a major producer of fake drugs, its law enforcement agencies are receptive to tips and generally act on them, unlike India where “we don’t see as much enforcement action.”
Mahesh Zagade, a former food and medicine commissioner in Maharashtra, says that although India’s legitimate medicine supply chain is strong, one of the problems is the checks and balances when patients will buy them. Zagade says that, while in office, he prioritized the use of prescriptions in pharmacies. “In these stores, there were no invoices or receipts,” he explains. “In terms of patient compliance, a lot was missing.”
Besides fake drugs, substandard drugs containing toxic contaminants or insufficient active ingredients pose a serious threat to public health, warns Thakur. Last year, 12 children died in the northern Jammu region after taking cough syrup containing diethylene glycol – an antifreeze agent that causes kidney failure.
“As a country, we don’t have a very good vigilance system,” Thakur says.