A flu vaccine in Mexico has become the latest drug to emerge on Latin America’s burgeoning black market medicine trade, highlighting how criminal groups are increasingly providing items believed to be of help against COVID-19.
On November 15, Mexico’s Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risk (Comisión Federal para la Protección contra Riesgos Sanitarios — COFEPRIS) warned that a flu vaccine called Vaxigrip was being sold illegally online.
“The Vaxigrip vaccine manufactured by Sanofi Pasteur SA de CV is only distributed in the Public Sector, so it cannot be purchased in private pharmacies, private hospitals or via social media networks,” COFEPRIS announced.
And the following day, on November 16, some 11,000 rapid COVID-19 tests were seized by customs agents at Abraham González airport in Ciudad Juárez, Vanguardia reported.
This comes just a month after over 10,000 doses of flu vaccine were stolen from a truck belonging to Mexico’s Institute of Social Security (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social – IMSS). The theft came on the heels of the government’s announcement that there would be a scarcity of flu vaccines due to the pandemic, so the smugglers saw an opportunity.
Mexico’s medicinal black market is by no means a new phenomenon. In 2018, Mexico had the sixth-largest market for clandestine medication in the world, which comprises around eight million users and causes estimated annual losses of $150 million nationally.
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As Latin America continues to face dire shortages of critical medical supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic, the black market for medicine has reacted quickly.
This year, whenever a real or unproven remedy has been touted as a possible cure for COVID-19, it soon appeared on the black market. Last June in Brazil, shortly after President Jair Bolsonaro touted hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for the coronavirus, smugglers were found bringing more than 3,000 doses illegally into Paraguay.
In September in Venezuela, the first drug shown to be effective against COVID-19, remdesivir, was booming on the black market with one doctor selling it for $800 a vial to patients at Ciudad Hospitalaria Enrique Tejera, a hospital in the city of Valencia.
As hospitals became increasingly inundated, governments began putting off and canceling more and more operations and treatments for other diseases, including cancer. This provided another window of opportunity for more specific demands.
The most audacious example of this came in October in Mexico City when around 38,000 anti-cancer drugs were stolen from a warehouse, with gunmen assaulting staff and driving off in five vehicles. While these were soon found, the raid raised questions about how such complex drugs would even be administered.