The "Parallel Pandemic" of Fake Cures

An epidemic of bogus COVID-19 cures runs rampant around the world.

Posted Apr 22, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

The World Health Organization has warned of a sharp rise in fake medicines purporting to cure COVID-19, many of which are potentially dangerous in their own right. In what one expert described as a "parallel pandemic, of substandard and falsified products," many desperate consumers are turning to online hucksters offering coronavirus "cures" as well as substandard face masks and protective gear.  

Interpol has reported that its global pharmaceutical crime-fighting unit, Operation Pangea, made 121 arrests across 90 countries in just seven days, including the seizure of dangerous pharmaceuticals worth over $14 million U.S. "The illicit trade in such counterfeit medical items during a public health crisis, shows a total disregard for people's lives," Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock said in a recent interview.   

Operating primarily in developing nations, many drug counterfeiters are selling medicines which can be contaminated, contain the wrong or no active ingredient, or may be past the recommended expiry date. According to WHO sources, sales of these medications have brought in more than $30 billion in low- and middle-income countries.

"Best case scenario they [fake medicines] probably won't treat the disease for which they were intended," said Pernette Bourdillion Esteve, who is part of the WHO team dealing with falsified medical products. "But worst-case scenario they'll actively cause harm, because they might be contaminated with something toxic."   

Antibiotics and antimalarials are in particular demand, especially hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug touted by U.S. President Donald Trump and others. The surging demand has driven up the price of the medication and even the ingredients needed to produce the drug in tablet form.  

Despite the lack of definitive evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective in treating COVID-19, large quantities of fake chloroquine have been found in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, among other locations. Sold for many times its original price, the fake medication was allegedly manufactured by allegedly manufactured in Belgium by "Brown and Burk Pharmaceutical Limited," according to a recent BBC investigation. Though there is an actual pharmaceutical company by that name registered in the UK, it emphatically denies producing the drug. 

Many consumers are also buying up a popular fish-tank cleaner that has the same active ingredient as the chloroquine. One Arizona man recently died after ingesting the additive and health experts fear that more such cases could occur, especially in countries without stringent medication controls. 

As the pandemic continues, authorities warn that greater coordination is needed by international agencies and governments around the world to stem the trade in fake goods. At the same time, the spread of misinformation on social messaging sites such as Facebook is helping drive demand. Along with fake medications, many hucksters are promoting more dubious remedies such as garlic, "miracle minerals," "instant" coronavirus testing kits, homemade hand sanitizer, and face masks. One website was recently sanctioned for selling coronavirus vaccine kits reportedly produced by the World Health Organization.

Televangelists like Jim Bakker and conspiracy-theorist broadcasters like Alex Jones are also trying to cash in on these bogus cures, including colloidal silver, which is being presented as a valid treatment despite well-publicized risks of silver poisoning. Though the WHO and national health services continue to spread the message that these remedies are useless, many desperate consumers seem unwilling to listen. 

Arthur Caplan, the founding head of the division of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine, is one expert trying to warn about the dangers of many of these products. “There is nothing homeopathic or nutritional that can help you with the virus,” he told reporters “The idea that people are floating some kind of diagnostic solution or magic or therapy on the internet, it’s all total crap.” For now, he warns, consumers should avoid any products being offered for sale online, especially from unknown distributors.  

But it is the very uncertainty surrounding the current pandemic that may be motivating many consumers desperate to regain control over their lives. Psychologists warn that this sense of uncertainty may make them more susceptible to online claims. This creates an opening for scam artists hoping to profit from the fear that the COVID-19 pandemic is generating. 

For now, consumers need to be wary of any cures being offered on the Internet or through social media. While social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are attempting to weed out advertisements as they arise, hucksters are turning to other sources, including word of mouth, in the hope of making a quick profit.