A black market for an antiviral drug used to treat coronavirus has emerged in Venezuela, revealing that even expensive, lifesaving medicines are fuelling the lucrative illegal trade.
Remdesivir -- the first drug shown to be effective against COVID-19 -- was being sold by a doctor for $800 a vial to patients at Ciudad Hospitalaria Enrique Tejera, a hospital in the city of Valencia, Attorney General Tarek William Saab alleged in a Sept. 9 news conference.
The doctor -- a Colombian national -- was arrested and charged with soliciting bribes, contraband and illicit association, Globovisión reported.
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He allegedly told patients’ family members that while the hospital had no “medical resources,” he could procure them the vials of remdesivir, which the Ministry of Health offers “for free,” Saab said.
The doctor is also accused of working with private pharmacies to sell medicine stolen from the hospital, whose director is also under investigation to determine whether he took part in the scheme, Saab said. Colombia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the arrest of the doctor arbitrary and asked that his physical integrity be respected.
On September 8, in the town of Clarines, about 250 kilometers east of Caracas, soldiers with the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana -- GNB) stopped a pick-up truck, in which two people were smuggling 500 injections of remdesivir, Ultimas Noticias reported.
And three days later, on September 11, Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN) agents raided two pharmacies in which government health officials were allegedly involved in the selling of coronavirus medications, El Pitazo reported.
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While low-cost, unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine have been smuggled in Latin America amid the pandemic, remdesivir appears to be the first high-cost, brand-name and likely effective medicine to enter the black market.
Remdesivir -- manufactured by US pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences and originally produced to treat Ebola -- is the only treatment so far shown to speed recovery in severely ill coronavirus patients. Gilead has set the sale price of the drug for governments “of developed countries” at $390 a vial, meaning that a typical five-day treatment of six vials costs $2,340, Gilead Chairman Daniel O’Day said in a statement.
Due to the health crisis, the company has also allowed remdesivir to be manufactured generically and sold to 127 countries, nearly all “low-income or middle-income,” according to a company press release. Venezuela, however, was not among the countries listed in the distribution agreement.
Despite Gilead’s attempt to make the treatment widely available, remdesivir shortages have spurred black market sales.
In India, for example, police arrested 14 people who sold locally made doses high above the maximum retail price, Reuters reported. The drug is available generically there for about $64 a vial, according to CNBC. The Mumbai ring involved hospital and pharmacy staff, as well as nurses, according to CBS News, which interviewed a man who paid about $3,200 for a full course of treatment. The remdesivir cost him about $533 for each dose, which his son sought out after doctors had told him to find his own supply because the hospital had run out.
In Latin America, no drug manufacturer is licensed to produce remedisivir. Only Cuba, Guyana, Suriname and several Central American countries are part of the agreement to buy it generically. This means that black market remdisivir is all but guaranteed to be immensely profitable in South American countries that already have thriving contraband and counterfeit medicine trades, such as Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.
In Venezuela, the country’s failing medical system -- which was already struggling prior to the pandemic -- has also likely spurred demand for illegal medicine.
According to Argentine news outlet Clarín, patients have thronged hospitals only to not receive care because of a lack of beds. Tests are scarce and can take 20 days to receive results. Gloves, masks and alcohol sanitizer are in short supply, and 90 percent of hospitals are without even soap and water, Douglas León Natera, director of Venezuela's Medical Federation, told the news outlet La Prensa de Lara.
It is unclear how much the doctor who was selling the Remdesivir for $800 a dose in Venezuela profited from the scheme; the sum is a fortune for average Venezuelans, though within reach of wealthier people.