Covid antivirals on sale illegally in HCMC

By Thu Anh   December 7, 2021 | 09:00 pm PT
Covid antivirals on sale illegally in HCMC
A medical worker checks on a Covid-19 patient isolated at home in HCMC, August 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
The lack of access to antiviral drugs to treat Covid-19 in HCMC has pushed residents to look for such products online, even with the risk of buying fakes.

Minh Long's parents were not given molnupiravir by local medical facilities after they contracted Covid-19.

So he sought online help and received dozens of calls and text messages selling the antiviral drug, which should not be commercially available, legally.

"All the salespeople say their stuff is the good one, either coming from the government or imported from India, Russia and the U.S... Each offers a different price, but they refused to let me come and see the drugs first hand," said Long, 22, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City's District 8.

One salesperson said he'd just turned 18, another claimed to be a coronavirus patient who was selling leftover molnupiravir, and yet another claimed to be a doctor, Long said.

Long's parents, both 60, tested positive for the coronavirus on November 25 after showing symptoms like coughing, fever and fatigue. Long contacted the local medical station to get drugs for treatment, but only received vitamins and antipyretics. The family's request for molnupiravir was not met.

There is a shortage of molnupiravir in HCMC as thousands of new coronavirus cases are recorded every day. Long's family is not the only one unable to get the much-desired antiviral drug.

"My parents are old and they have underlying conditions, I don't want to risk (not getting the antiviral drug) it," Long said, explaining his hunt. In the end, he managed to find 200mg of favipiravir, another antiviral, for around VND6 million ($260).

His parents tested negative for the virus 5-6 days after taking the drug. His father, however, had to be hospitalized as his lungs had suffered 20 percent damage.

Thuan, 27, said it took several days of online searching to find molnupiravir for her brother's family in District 1, where three people got infected. They did not receive the antiviral from the local medical station and this worried the family, particularly because her sister-in-law was on daily medication for hypertension.

A man named Nhan contacted Thuan and offered her a molnupiravir course with 20 pills to be had over five days, at VND290,000 a pill. An alternative would be VND150,000 per pill of favipiravir.

Nhan said the drugs were imported and were identical to those distributed by medical institutions in the country.

He said: "Good drugs are expensive. I run out of stock all the time as demand is very high."

Another man named Nghia offered her 40 pills of molnupiravir for VND8.5 million. He too claimed that they were imported. He said he would deliver the drugs straight to the door for cash. He claimed to have been selling the drug for over six months and that no one had complained about their quality.

A social media account called Sang Nguyen, whose profile says he's a doctor at a HCMC hospital, said due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreaks, antivirals are in high demand and are very expensive, especially molnupiravir, the drug currently used by the Ministry of Health to treat coronavirus cases at home.

A 400 mg box could cost around VND12.7 million, Sang said.

"I guarantee these drugs are from the health ministry as we collected them from coronavirus patients. They had mild symptoms and decided not to use the drugs they received, so they sold them back to us," he explained.

A VnExpress rapid survey found that the prices of existing Covid-19 antivirals could range from VND4 million to as high as VND16 million.

Illegal transactions

Molnupiravir was used by the health ministry on a trial basis to treat Covid-19 patients in HCMC since mid-August. Following their clinical trials, they have been officially distributed for free under special management. The drug is distributed by the municipal health department to 22 medical facilities across the city.

Boxes of the Covid-19 antiviral molnupiravir. Photo obtained by VnExpress

Boxes of the Covid-19 antiviral molnupiravir. Photo obtained by VnExpress

Nguyen Dinh Thanh, director of the Thong Nhat Hospital, which performed clinical trials for molnupiravir, said current antiviral drugs are all experimental and must be approved by the health ministry and followed by doctors' prescriptions to be used. The only source for the drug in Vietnam is the health ministry itself, he stressed.

"People should not use antiviral sold on the street as they might be from unofficial sources and might be fake," Thanh said, adding that while the drugs might be effective, they still have side effects that would need expert supervision and management.

Certain groups, like pregnant women, those under 18 and above 65, should not consume the drugs on their own because there has been no research done to assess its long-term effects and other possible impacts, he warned.

A representative of the Drug Administration of Vietnam said the drugs might either be fake or "leaked" from medical facilities. Tang Chi Thuong, director of the HCMC health department, said selling the drug was illegal as it has not been made commercially available.

In a recent document, the Department of Health said many people have taken advantage of Covid-19 worries to sell antivirals with no clear sources. Such illegal sales may lead to fake drugs and cause conditions to worsen, it warned.

In one case, the department cooperated with the police and busted a warehouse of the Binh Tan District medical station to find 60 missing molnupiravir boxes. A pharmacist said 20 boxes have been distributed to quarantine zones, while the other 40 boxes remained missing.

Several people have been detained in relation to the unapproved sale of Covid-19 drugs. For instance, two employees from two medical centers were detained for leaking the drugs and re-selling them online at three times their original price.

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