Claiming to be doctors, sellers on Facebook are illegally hawking the government’s free COVID-19 medications online for sky-high prices amid the country’s supply scarcity.
Facebook Marketplace is awash with anti-viral drugs used to treat COVID-19, such as Molnupiravir, Favipiravir, and Favimol, all of which are specially controlled by the Ministry of Health and given free-of-charge to patients with mild symptoms.
In late November, as Ho Chi Minh City’s supply of Molnupiravir was dwindling towards zero and municipal authorities were requesting that the Ministry of Health send an additional 100,000 doses, V.J. – a Ho Chi Minh City resident – was selling the coveted drug for VND1.2 million (US$52.8) per blister pack of 10 tablets through his Facebook account.
When Tuoi Tre reporters tried to purchase Molnupiravir from V.J., he claimed to have sourced the medicine from a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City and explained that he only fills orders of at least four blister packs.
“The medicine was smuggled out of a hospital, so they are authentic. They are meant to be used under hospital supervision and are banned from the open market,” V.J. said.
In order to purchase Molnupiravir from V.J., a buyer must pay by bank account transfer before heading to the front gate of a local hospital at 3:00 or 4:00 am.
Once at the hospital, a nurse smuggles the drugs out to the waiting customer.
“[Molnupiravir] is hard to be found on the market and it always sells at high prices. There have also been cases of medical workers being arrested for smuggling COVID-19 drugs out of their hospitals,” V.J. explained.
In addition to Molnupiravir, V.J. also sells Favipiravir for VND10 million ($441) per box, as well as 625mg Augmentin and 200mg Favimol.
N.T.T., another COVID-19 medication dealer in southern Vietnam, claims to be a doctor at M.P. General Hospital in Binh Duong province.
Buyers who contact T. are referred to ‘Dr. Hieu,’ who T. says works at a field hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Call Dr. Hieu and tell him your situation. He handles COVID-19 treatment [at the field hospital] and will help you. Do not listen to anyone else,” T. said after being contacted by a Tuoi Tre reporter posing as a potential customer.
The reporter called ‘Dr. Hieu’ and was told he had run out of Molnupiravir, but the typical price is VND15 million ($663) per box.
The ‘doctor’ also said he was selling Favipiravir for VND2.7 million ($119) per box.
Fifteen minutes after the conversation ended, the ‘doctor’ called the reporter back and said he had found Molnupiravir and could resell it for VND7 million ($309) per blister pack.
The reporter agreed to buy the drugs and was told they would be delivered after ‘Dr. Hieu’ received payment by bank account transfer.
When the reporter insisted that Dr. Hieu meet him in person, the deal was called off.
The reporter then tried to contact T. again and offered to purchase four blister packs of 200mg Molnupiravir for VND8 million ($353).
Tuoi Tre also contacted, B.S.M., a Facebook user who introduced himself as a doctor at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City who had once been assigned to a COVID-19 field hospital.
M. claimed to be selling 400mg Molnupiravir for VND16 million ($706) per box.
According to M., doctors at COVID-19 hospitals are required to make reports when prescribing drugs to patients.
They are also required to return any unused drugs. Many, however, smuggle the unused drugs out of the hospitals to sell for exorbitant prices.
A representative of M.P. General Hospital in Binh Duong confirmed that T. was an employee at the hospital but had recently quit without giving an advance notice.
“COVID-19 drugs are given directly to patients. We never gave COVID-19 drugs to patients through [T.],” the hospital said.
Regarding V.J.’s claim that COVID-19 drugs had been smuggled out of a Ho Chi Minh City-based hospital, the hospital’s director confirmed that the facility had piloted the use of Molnupiravir at a field hospital in September.
The use of Molnupiravir at the hospital was strictly controlled and all of the unused drugs were sent back to the Ministry of Health, the director said.
Police in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Tan District recently arrested and prosecuted two employees at medical centers in Tan Phu and Binh Tan Districts for illegally trading COVID-19 drugs.
City police have also prosecuted three defendants for manufacturing and trading fake COVID-19 drugs.
Molnupiravir is currently used in 34 Vietnamese provinces and cities for the treatment of COVID-19 patients under a pilot program sponsored by the health ministry, with Ho Chi Minh City being the first locality to use the drug.
With a view to prevent profiteering, the ministry has repeatedly required that drugs be used for the right purpose, be returned when unused, and be handled only by authorized individuals.
This drug must not be given to patients without symptoms, the ministry said.