Fraudulent online pharmacies selling dangerous fake pills find opportunity in pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a plethora of online and remote services, but not all of them are as useful as extensions to telemedicine or groceries ordered online and delivered to your door: fake online pharmacies have also proliferated during COVID-19, putting their customers at serious risk.

“Criminals will use any emergency or crisis to make money,” said John Hertig, vice president of the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at Butler University and president of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies. Arizona mirror.

Due to the pandemic, many people across the country and in Arizona have been restricted in their movement, especially those with pre-existing health conditions requiring specific medications. This has been accompanied by a boom in fake online pharmacies, taking advantage of the situation, Hertig said.

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Online pharmacies have been around almost as long as the internet, as have those operated by criminal enterprises or individuals who are not qualified to properly manufacture or store the pharmaceutical compounds needed to manufacture a litany of drugs.

“Most consumers think that if it shows up in the first page of Google results, it has been approved by the FDA or Google,” Hertig said, adding that many consumers are drawn to the low prices and the convenience. of use.

Arizona, which has a large elderly population, is particularly at risk for bogus online pharmacy scams.

The problem of fake online pharmacies has become so widespread that the Drug Enforcement Administration has released its first public safety alert in six years, warning of an increase in fake prescription drugs sold online that contain dangerous drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Fentanyl and methamphetamine aren’t the only things these fake pharmacies put in their meds. Some contain ethylene glycol, a chemical commonly found in antifreeze and brake fluid, because it can make things taste “sweeter”. In some cases, it has been found in medicines for children.

“It’s not a good business model,” Hertig said of using antifreeze in drugs, but it can be a cheap alternative for those bogus online pharmacies trying to make money. quickly.

Other times, law enforcement found these pharmacies selling sugar pills as medicine. Or the pills are cut with inert substances like brick dust or chalk in order to dilute the drug used, allowing them to sell more pills, Hertig said.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg and in the wake of COVID other issues have started to arise, especially with “alternative” treatments.

Earlier this year, a a Utah pharmacist has been arrested after illegally buying a large amount of hydroxychloroquine from a wholesaler in China who mislabelled the controversial drug. This tactic is commonly used by wholesalers who sell to non-reputable online pharmacies, said Shabbir Imber Safdar, Executive Director of the Safe Medicines Partnership.

Chinese and Indian companies manufacture so-called “precursor chemicals” that are needed by many pharmaceutical compounds, including the now popular hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

“It’s not hard to get your hands on this stuff – it’s a lot of money for this stuff,” Safdar said.

Only one site visited by the Arizona Mirror selling several forms of ivermectin without a prescription from a purported Canadian pharmacy.

Safdar said they had yet to see any fake ivermectin, but the drug was gaining popularity among vaccine skeptics who saw it as an alternative to getting a free vaccine.

Ivermectin has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19. It is mainly used to treat parasitic worms and is not an antiviral medicine. An FDA-approved form of medicine is used to treat people with intestinal diseases and ascaris.

In Arizona, the drug has led to an increase in calls to poison control centers, with one person even being hospitalized and people are saying desperate things to try and get hold of the medicine.

The Mirror found several online pharmacies claiming to be based in Canada – but who say they cannot deliver drugs to Canadians, for unexplained reasons – selling the drug in paste and injectable form intended for animals as well as in animal form of pill. None of these forms required a prescription, however, hydroxychloroquine did on at least one of the sites.

None of the sites met the standards for LegitScript, a website that helps consumers determine whether or not an online pharmacy is a legitimate pharmacy.

While reputable online pharmacies are federally and state regulated, fake pharmacies based in foreign countries are not – and they prey on uneducated consumers.

“The lack of a pharmacy license means that nothing else matters, it is implicitly not safe,” Safdar said. “We’ve seen all these examples of people operating without regulatory oversight. ”

Because they are foreign, online pharmacies cannot be regulated by the Arizona Board of Pharmacy, and the board does not have the authority to investigate or enforce them. The Board of Pharmacy did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

This leaves the application of these pharmacies to the federal government and other international organizations.

“If everything is federal, it’s a lot of crimes that compete for many hours of law enforcement,” Safdar said.

The DEA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Consumers can still protect themselves by using sites like LegitScript to make sure they are using a genuine online pharmacy with counseling certifications and is based in the United States.

For now, people like Safdar and Hertig are sounding the alarm bells and trying to get their colleagues, law enforcement and consumers to listen and be educated on the issue that continues to take hold. magnitude as we become an increasingly dependent society on delivery services. .

“There is a population of the Internet who will now be buying everything online,” Hertig said, “It’s not going to go away. If anything, this has been exacerbated by the pandemic. “

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