People forced to buy drug used to treat severe Covid-19 patients in black marketPatients paying up to 17 times the government approved price for Tocilizumab, a drug that is in short supply.
On Monday last week, when the health condition of a 47-year-old man infected with Covid-19 started deteriorating fast, doctors at HAMS Hospital asked his relatives to find Tocilizumab, an arthritis drug which is said to reduce the risk of death in severe coronavirus infected patients.
However, it was not easy to find the drug manufactured by Roche, a Swiss multinational healthcare company. The patient’s relatives approached Yetichem, the authorised importer and distributor of the drug in Nepal, to no avail.
“We got the drug only on Thursday [after four days] sold on black market for Rs1 million. We got the drug and it was administered to my brother, but he died on Saturday,” Dhana Raj Gurung, brother of the deceased man, told the Post over the phone from Pokhara. “We are mourning his death right now.”
Doctors around the world have been using Tocilizumab for treating critically ill Covid-19 patients. The drug is still undergoing clinical trials to ascertain whether it is a definitive treatment option for critical coronavirus patients.
“When steroids stop working and health conditions of patients become too critical, Tocilizumab injection is used,” Dr Prabhat Adhikari, an infectious disease and critical care expert, told the Post. “We heard that the drug is in short supply in the US as well.”
Gurung refused to identify the person who sold the drug to him. He said that despite spending Rs 1 million on the drug, his brother did not survive and he does not want to extend the issue.
However, with the rise in the number of critical Covid-19 patients of late, demand for the drug has increased several fold. Due to limited supply, the drug is being smuggled into the country and sold in the black market at exorbitant prices.
Gurung paid more than 17 times the price ceiling set by the Department of Drug Administration, the national regulator of the drug market. The department has allowed the supplier to sell the drug for not more than Rs58,000, according to Santosh KC, spokesperson for the department.
“Selling medicine at a price more than 17 times higher is simply extortion,” said Bishnu Prasad Timalsina, deputy general secretary for the Forum for Protection of Consumer Rights-Nepal. “And all this is happening under the protection of the state machinery. When the agencies responsible for market regulation ignore issues like this, people are bound to suffer.”
Timalsina said that such malpractice is common not only in drugs for Covid-19 treatment but also in private hospitals to treat coronavirus patients.
Earlier, the Ministry of Health and Population had formed a committee to monitor the exorbitant fees charged by private hospitals. The committee has not disclosed its findings so far.
“Relatives are ready to pay any amount demanded by hospitals and pharmacies to save the lives of their loved ones,” said Timalsina. “Some people are taking undue advantage of their desperation. What is concerning is that the regulatory bodies are helping such people, not the victims.”
The Department of Drug Administration said that stern legal action will be taken if any firm is found selling Tocilizumab in the black market.
“Yetichem imported 200 doses of the drug on Monday,” Santosh KC, spokesperson for the department, told the Post. “No one is permitted to sell the medicine at a price higher than the ceiling set by the government.”