Smugglers in Brazil wasted no time in moving an anti-malarial drug touted by President Jair Bolsonaro as a potential treatment for the coronavirus, bringing more than 3,000 doses illegally into the country days after health authorities approved its use.
On May 27, police in Brazil seized 120 boxes of hydroxychloroquine and arrested four people on charges of smuggling the medicine from neighboring Paraguay, Última Hora reported. When police discovered the contraband in a truck in the Brazilian state of Goiás, officers were told that its destination was a field hospital in the far-northern state of Maranhão. The 3,600 doses of hydroxychloroquine were identified as Paraguayan in origin, and the truck had left from Campo Grande near the Paraguay border, police said.
Just a week before the seizure of the anti-malarial drug, Bolsonaro and the country’s Ministry of Health passed new guidelines approving its use in the treatment of coronavirus. The country has been ravaged in recent weeks by the coronavirus, with more than 560,000 cases and 31,000 deaths as of June 3.
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Though Bolsonaro admitted that there is no consensus about the drug’s efficacy and potential side effects, which have been scrutinized, he is one of a handful of world leaders still touting hydroxychloroquine as a therapy for the coronavirus. In response, Brazilian pharmaceutical companies have increased their production of hydroxychloroquine, and the country has also received imports of the drug from elsewhere, including the United States.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned against the premature sanctioning of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, with no study to date supporting that it has any effect on the virus. The drug is also known to have potentially harmful cardiological side effects.
On June 3, the country registered 1,349 deaths from coronavirus, the highest single-day tally so far, for a total of 32,548 dead.
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The speed with which contraband hydroxychloroquine appeared in Brazil is a dangerous sign of how smugglers will quickly take advantage of nations desperate for a coronavirus treatment.
After President Trump touted the drug, worldwide demand for it spiked. Patients who used the drug to treat lupus, malaria and rheumatoid arthritis soon found it in short supply, putting their health in danger.
On May 31, the United States shipped 2 million doses of hydroxychloroquine to Brazil. As these types of government actions introduce hydroxychloroquine into medical supply chains, theft and resale of the drug on criminal markets will surely follow.
Countries such as México and Colombia already hosted thriving black markets for medicine prior to the pandemic. For years, systemic health care inequalities, lax regulations, corruption and high costs for legal medicines have made contraband drugs more accessible for those who need them. The pandemic has only exacerbated this situation.
In a March press release, Interpol reported a global rise in seizures of contraband medicine, including a 100 percent increase in chloroquine, the key component of hydroxychloroquine, and an 18 percent increase in seizures of antivirals. Authorities said both could be attributed to the coronavirus outbreak.
Other coronavirus treatments, most of them fraudulent if not dangerous, have made their way into Latin America's black market medicine trade.
In Perú, authorities seized 20,000 flasks of the anti-parasite drug ivermectin, which has been promoted as a coronavirus treatment despite studies casting doubt on its effectiveness. The flasks, intended for resale at local pharmacies, were in fact filled with veterinary ivermectin -- a version of the drug not fit for human consumption.