U.S. Authorities Seize Shipments Of Illicit COVID-19 Drugs Smuggled Into Mexico

Unauthorized versions of Remdesivir, a COVID-19 treatment drug, have been seized at U.S. airports by federal authorities. Large shipments of the drug have been arriving in the U.S. by plane from India and Bangladesh. These batches of Remdesivir, possibly counterfeit or generic versions, are being smuggled by individuals into Mexico to be sold to desperate COVID-19 patients. Black markets for medicine have become the last resort for many during this pandemic, particularly in Latin American countries where certain treatments are in short supply.

The Wall Street Journal reports that versions of Remdesivir being smuggled into Mexico were intended for patients “willing to pay top dollar for the drugs.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have captured more than 100 shipments in the past few months. Mexico’s drug regulatory agency, COFEPRIS, said it is concerned about the existence of any clandestine market and works with its counterparts in other countries to protect consumers from dubious products.

Remdesivir is an antiviral drug that was first cleared for emergency use by U.S. regulators last year, during the first few months of the pandemic. The intravenous drug is manufactured by Gilead Sciences Inc., and sold under the brand name Veklury. Although Remdesivir has shown to provide only a “modest benefit,” it has become part of the standard of care in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, due to the “limited arsenal of tools” available to physicians to treat COVID-19. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mexican demand for Gilead’s Remdesivir has skyrocketed recently because the country cleared its use in recent months.

“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,” Gilead said in an email to Reuters.

The pandemic has exposed gaps in the public health systems of countries across the world, from insufficient hospital space to a shortage of medical resources. Mexico is one of the many countries that has had trouble providing sufficient medical supplies for COVID-19 patients. According to Insight Crime, the non-profit journalism organization, the dire shortages of critical medical supplies amid the pandemic have spurred the black market for medicine to react quickly in many Latin American countries. In November 2020, COFEPRIS issued a warning that a flu vaccine called Vaxigrip was being sold illegally online. In September in Venezuela, Remdesivir was “booming on the black market” with reports of one doctor selling it for $800 a vial. The current U.S. list price per vial is $520.

Filled with desperation, many have resorted to the black market to obtain life-saving medication. Slate Magazine reports that Mexico has long “battled with a black market of stolen, adulterated, and expired medicines.” The size of this illicit market is estimated to be valued at $550 million in 2012. Remdesivir is one of the many profitable drugs that have recently entered the market, as well as the coveted COVID-19 vaccine. However, without proper licensing and approval by regulatory bodies, many lives are endangered by these clandestine markets.