New Delhi: Samarth Chander, a resident of Delhi, went through an ordeal last month when his 65-year-old father, a critical Covid-19 patient, was prescribed remdesivir at a private hospital. Chander was asked to arrange four vials of the drug that is said to be an experimental yet promising cure for the novel coronavirus.
“They are selling remdesivir in the black-market for Rs 40,000-50,000. My father has been in a private hospital for weeks now, so the bills are massive. With the additional cost of remdesivir, I don’t know how I will afford everything,” Chander told ThePrint.
Another Delhi resident, Mohit Gupta, had a similar experience. “After going to several medical stores in my area, one store manager gave me a number for this person who was selling it for six times the price,” he said. Gupta said he purchased a single vial of remdesivir for Rs 30,000, but refused to share details of the person with ThePrint.
With Covid-19 cases spiking daily, black-marketing of remdesivir has become common across India — it is being sold for multiple times its retail price of Rs 5,500 per vial. According to different complaints reported by consumers, the drug is being sold at rates ranging from Rs 15,000 to Rs 60,000.
The Narendra Modi government as well as state administrations have now stepped in to stop this practice is various ways, including daily stock checks, gathering information from chemist shops, deploying decoy customers and putting pressure on manufacturers to increase production.
How the racket is being run
At least six persons people ThePrint spoke to, including government officials, said the mark-up on the drug is anywhere between six and ten times the price, and that the racket is operating through hospital staff members, who have access to remdesivir.
“It is generally the staff of the hospital who are involved in leaking remdesivir from hospitals and then indulging in black-marketing. In Haryana, local retailers and chemists are not involved as the drug is sold to hospitals directly by the companies,” said N.K. Ahooja, State Drug Controller, Haryana.
In Maharashtra, many cases were reported where black-marketers posing as Covid patients’ family members persuaded politicians or district heads to help them.
“These unscrupulous elements will show them all kinds of proof, including the Covid test report, hospital admission slip and doctor’s prescription,” said Vijaykumar S. Singhavi, technical officer (allopathic medicine) with the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration, who is also officer on special duty to Food and Drugs Administration Minister Rajendra Shingane.
“Eventually, these people will help them (unscrupulous elements) by calling the top doctors and asking for vials of the drug. In a few cases, they requested the companies’ distributors to send them the vials, which ultimately got leaked into the grey market for at least 10 times the MRP,” Singhavi said.
The role of chemists in the racket hasn’t been established yet. Sandeep Nangia, president of Delhi’s Retailers and Distributors Chemist Association, said: “Most of the injections being sold in the black-market were from Bangladesh. The few Indian-made vials were possibly sold from hospitals or they were leaked in the supply chain from the distributors.”
The result is that someone like Kuldeep Mahajan, a doctor who runs a private hospital in Mumbai and tested positive for Covid-19 on 2 July, is left battling for the drug.
His brother Sandeep Mahajan said: “He was admitted to our hospital first and later shifted to a friend’s hospital for further care. We needed remdesivir and could not find it in the market. An MP helped us find the contact of a black-market dealer on Mira Road. He promised to make the drug available to us for Rs 40,000.”
Mahajan was later given a dose of tocilizumab instead of remdesivir.
ThePrint visited medical shops in Yusuf Sarai market, near Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, to corroborate allegations of black-marketing. Most shop owners said they didn’t know anything about the drug’s availability in private stores, while one store owner provided the number of a dealer who sold the drug illegally. The dealer promised to provide the drug for Rs 30,000, saying: “Madam, we charge a high price because we barely make any money. Even if I sell you the drug for Rs 30,000, I will only make Rs 2,000.”
The dealer admitted he would get the vial of the drug from a hospital in the city.
Centre & states’ action
On 7 July, Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) V.G. Somani asked states and union territories to keep a “strict vigil” to prevent the “black-marketing” of remdesivir, following a complaint from LocalCircles — a community social media and polling firm.
The complaint raised concerns regarding black-marketing and over-pricing of remdesivir by certain “unscrupulous persons”.
“The MRP of remdesivir marketed by Hetero Healthcare Limited is Rs 5,400, but consumers have reported it being sold at a price of anywhere between Rs 15,000 and Rs 60,000,” said the complaint.
Following the DCGI’s instructions, state drug inspectors have swung into action.
Every evening, Haryana’s Ahooja asks hospitals for their stock position of these drugs. He has also deployed decoy customers to catch those involved in the black-marketing racket red-handed.
“We check stock position of these drugs and also call up doctors and take the consumption details of the drug, along with the phone numbers of the patients’ family to cross-check. The chances of leakage by hospital staff are reduced to minimum,” Ahooja said.
Chemists are also helping drug inspectors in gathering leads about the racketeers. “The patients’ families do come to chemist shops to check if we can order drugs for them. These black-marketeers are roaming around our shops. As and when we sniff any anti-social activity, we pass on the lead to the state drug inspectors,” said J.S. Shinde, president of the All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD), the largest such association that represents 8.5 lakh Indian pharmacies.
Singhavi from the Maharashtra FDA confirmed this. “Based on the leads provided by chemists, we have busted three rackets. We have raided and arrested 10 people involved in the crime,” he said.
Step up manufacturing
The central government has also stepped up pressure on the makers of remdesivir to ensure increased output, so that there is no shortage.
The Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) held two meetings with the manufactures of the drug in the last 20 days to check the status of production, manufacturing capacity and challenges, if any.
“We are planning to hold another meeting soon. Two companies are yet to get the DCGI’s nod, namely Dr Reddy’s and Zydus Cadila. All other companies have ramped up the production between the first and second meeting,” said an official from DoP, which functions under the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers.