When President Trump promoted the malaria drug
hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment for COVID-19 in the spring, demand
for the product jumped. Most of the subsequent debate has been about the
efficacy of the drug as a treatment for prophylaxis for COVID-19. But arguably as
important is what happens to the market when a new cure or treatment is
developed. The market for hydroxychloroquine provides some lessons.
As I report in my new paper, the quality of the hydroxychloroquine available on the web was not universally good. Over three months (late April to early July) the drug was procured from international web pharmacies. Using a handheld spectrometer, quality was assessed in line with previous peer review studies. 48 samples were bought from 28 credentialed web pharmacies, and all were of good quality. 106 samples were procured from 53 non-credentialed web pharmacies, and 21 (20 percent) failed. Twelve of the samples from the non-credentialed sites were fakes, and nine were substandard. Both types of product could prove highly dangerous to users.
Compared with over a dozen previous samplings I have undertaken,
including of highly counterfeited medicines such as Viagra, this is by far the
worst example of inferior quality medicines found over the web.
Organizations including the Canadian Internet Pharmacy
Association and pharmacychecker.com credential legitimate foreign pharmacies
that sell on the web to US citizens. The sites they credentialed sold only good
medicines. There is debate as to whether hydroxychloroquine has any benefit for
COVID patients, but taking inferior versions of this medicine certainly won’t
Demand is likely to spike for any real treatments or
vaccines that are developed against the coronavirus. Shortages are therefore likely,
and web buyers should be aware of the dangers of buying from non-credentialed
While the risk of dying from COVID-19 is low for most healthy adults, there is also a real chance one could die from a bogus version of a cure.