U.S. authorities have seized illicit versions of the COVID-19 treatment remdesivir, an antiviral manufactured by Gilead Sciences Inc., bound for distribution in Mexico. The seizure comes as an effort by federal authorities to root out criminal activity related to the pandemic.
Demand is high for the antiviral in Mexico because just recently, the country cleared its use. And patients in Mexico are willing to pay top dollar for the drug. In the U.S., Veklury, the brand name for remdesivir, can cost $520 for a vial and as much as $3,120 for a course of treatment.
In recent months, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers reported they had seized nearly 100 shipments, which they then referred to Department of Homeland Security special agents for further investigation.
Counterfeit versions of the drug are arriving in the U.S. by plane from India and Bangladesh to be shipped to Mexico. Usually, the counterfeit versions of the drug come in 10-vial packages under generic names and are labeled as doctor samples or testing kits. The drugs are typically shipped in a package and not carried by a passenger and is then smuggled into Mexico. Counterfeit versions of prescription drugs usually contain another drug or simply water or saline solution inside.
Outside of the U.S., authorities have been investigating, likewise, counterfeit or unlicensed versions of remdesivir for months. In Colombia, authorities in January seized containers of a generic version of the drug from a woman at an airport who said it was a COVID-19 vaccine. And in India, authorities said they arrested a handful of people holding counterfeit versions of remdesivir in April and May; in one instance, suspects changed the label of an antibiotic to a remdesivir label.
"You've got to remember, if you don't have ready access to a vaccine and your healthcare system is at risk of collapse, you will try anything," said Shabbir Safdar, executive director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Safdar said that people outside the U.S. will even try something called brown-bagging, where they purchase prescription drugs on the street and then ask a healthcare professional to administer them.
"With the potential for Covid to be fatal, people are like, 'Yeah, I'll go buy remdesivir if I can find it and bring it into the hospital,'" Safdar said.
Gilead Sciences has said it condemns counterfeit use of its drug and will continue to support U.S. authorities' efforts.
"We caution against sourcing Gilead medicine from outside the approved and regulated supply chain, hospitals or pharmacies and will continue to support U.S. law enforcement in taking appropriate actions to protect patients," the company stated.
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