Patients in India now are not only battling the serious health of COVID-19. There is a new challenge facing citizens as the black market takes advantage of the growing demand for the drugs remdesivir and tocilizumab that doctors recommend to treat coronavirus infections.
A recent BBC investigation found that India has very limited supply of the two life-saving medications. Another problem is that available drugs are being sold for excessive rates at a medicine market in old Delhi.
The official price for each vial of remdesivir in India is 5,400 rupees ($72). But the black market offers a vial for 30,000 rupees ($400) to 38,000 rupees ($507).
A patient with COVID-19 normally needs five to six doses of the drug. The demand for remdesivir came after scientists found it could help reduce the duration of symptoms of coronavirus infection from 15 days to just 11 days.
The government in India approved the use of remdesivir for clinical trials and to be prescribed by doctors on compassionate grounds. In one COVID-19 case, a man from Delhi had to find people to arrange transactions outside hospitals to get the drug.
Abhinav Sharma said his uncle tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized for a high fever and difficulty in breathing. Doctors recommended remdesivir but asked the patient’s family to find it themselves.
Sharma said buying the drug was an impossible task at that time. They failed to get remdesivir from authorized distributors, which led them to the Delhi black market.
“I had tears in my eyes. My uncle was fighting for his life and I was struggling to arrange the medicine that could possibly save him,” he told the BBC. “After dozens of calls, I paid seven times the price to get the medicine. I was willing to pay any price really, but my heart goes out to people who can’t afford it.”
Many families shared the same experience with Sharma. Patients in Delhi and neighbouring districts were forced to rely on overpriced drugs for COVID-19, with some people spending their life’s savings to get remdesivir alone.
The price hike also affected another drug that scientists just recently found potentially effective against the complications of COVID-19. Tocilizumab, sold as Actemra, currently has very limited supply in India but both the demand and prices have been growing.
The massive gap between supply and demand mainly gave the black market the opportunity to significantly increase prices of the potential coronavirus drugs, according to the BBC.
Gilead Sciences, manufacturer of remdesivir, authorized Indian companies Cipla, Jubilant Life, Hetero Drugs and Mylon to produce the drug in the country. However, only Hetero was able to start production.
Asked about the availability of the drug on the black market, the company said it wasn’t sure how the “leakage” was happening.
“We have not given the medicine to our distributors. As per the guidelines, we have directly supplied the vials to hospitals,” Sandeep Shahstri, vice president of sales at Hetero, said. “Such black marketing was really demoralizing.”
He noted the company aims to increase production of remdesivir “in the next few days” to meet demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic.