Snake oil salesmen: Counterfeit drugs and the coronavirus pandemic



Misinformation and fake news are dangerous at the best of times, let alone during crises. The coronavirus pandemic has, tragically, brought with it a rise in both the frequency and severity of public lies. The situation is so bad, that scientists from the World Health Organisation (WHO) flew to Silicon Valley to caution top tech companies against the “infodemic”, spreading faster than the virus itself.

Snake oil salesmen have stood on street corners for long enough, urging any and all to “step right up” and buy their latest elixir. These travelling peddlers have long sought to profit from the panic of others; their finely tuned skills of persuasion filling the potholes of their moral fibre.

But there is a new breed of travelling salesman today, one that is far more dangerous. The worry is that many thousands more will needlessly die as these quacks hustle and scheme at the expense of others.

As global supply chains have shut down, demand for medicines and drugs have shot up. India and China, the world’s leading producers of medical supplies, are both on lockdown, strangling flows just as people are looking to stockpile. Demand far outstrips supply, and the counterfeit drug market is plugging the gap.

In the same week the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Interpol’s pharmaceutical crime fighting unit, Operation Pangea, made 121 arrests in 90 countries, seizing over $14m worth of fake pharmaceuticals. In 7 days.

Nowhere is the problem worse than in Africa. The WHO reported that, between 2013 and 2017, 42% of all fake medicines seized globally came from the continent, while PwC, an international consultancy firm, estimates that up to 70% of drugs in circulation across Africa could be fake.

It comes as no surprise then, that medicinal black-market sales are booming. Kenyan authorities recently detained 10 people during a raid on a shop in Nairobi selling fake coronavirus testing kits, having already sold around 600 to unsuspecting customers. Similarly, over 300 hospitals and pharmacies were found to be stocking fake drugs in Cameroon.

There are extremely dangerous, real-world consequences to fake medicines. In Nigeria, drugs can cost up to 64 times the international average, meaning relatively inexpensive yet vital medicines, like Oxytocin, which prevents women from bleeding to death during childbirth, are unaffordable for 95% of the population. It is perhaps then unsurprising to hear that one fifth of all maternal deaths happen in Nigeria.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates that sub-standard and fake anti-malarial drugs could be killing more than 116,000 children across Sub-Saharan Africa, at a cost of $38.5m, every year.

Efforts to combat the counterfeit market are often fruitless, especially when you, or your doctor, do not know that what you’ve been taking is fake. They truly are Africa’s “silent killer”. As Adham Yehia, who runs a MedTech company in Lagos, writes, “When you got to a hospital with a shortage of doctors or beds, the problem is obvious. But when the pharmaceutical products in the hospital are fake, no one is any the wiser”.

Openness and transparency are key in the fight against the counterfeit drugs market; science and reason must be at the vanguard of discussion. After President Trump extolled the virtues of the antimalarial drug chloroquine, a US man died after drinking a form of the chemical used for cleaning fish tanks. The same day, three men in Nigeria overdosed after ingesting large quantities. Trump did not to back up his claim the chemical could be a “gift from God”, with any degree of transparency or evidence.

The salesman turned president continues to encourage coronavirus patients to try chloroquine, while simultaneously lampooning the “fake news media”. The snake oil salesman has a new lease of life, but this emperor is not wearing any clothes.

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