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6 March 2020updated 11 Mar 2020 11:27am

How coronavirus is worsening the UK’s problem with unlicensed drugs

The epidemic has caused a sudden boom in illicit medicines from abroad.

By Will Dunn

Online retailers are selling unlicensed drugs that falsely claim to be able to prevent or cure coronavirus to consumers in the UK, the New Statesman has found. 

Arbidol is the trade name for Umifenovir, an antiviral medication developed in Russia in the late 1980s. In Russia and China it is widely used as a prophylactic against and treatment for colds – hundreds of millions of doses are sold per year. While there is evidence that it has antiviral properties, its effectiveness has been disputed in some trials, and it is not approved for use in the EU or the US. Nevertheless, it is being widely sold as a cure for Covid-19 coronavirus on eBay UK.

Listings on eBay include batches of Arbidol sold under the claim that it offers “potent antiviral activity against the Coronavirus”, and that the “Chinese government has confirmed the effectiveness of this drug against Covid-19” (it hasn’t, although very limited tests of Arbidol have been used in conjunction with another drug). Others claim that Arbidol is “active against influenza, sars, [crown emoji]”. (Corona is the Latin word for crown.)

The scale of Arbidol sales on eBay UK is evident from one listing, which warns that the seller has “only 1,400” packs remaining.

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Shown these listings, the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) confirmed that the Arbidol being sold on eBay UK and other websites, such as the internet pharmacy Rumedshop, “is not licensed for sale in UK”. The MHRA also responded that while some drugs can be legally sold online by registered pharmacists, “many websites are operating illegally, there are no qualified healthcare providers involved in the supply and the medicines supplied may not be the authorised product. Not only are they breaking the law, they are acting with total disregard of your health.”

Some sellers acknowledge the legal implications of importing unlicensed drugs. One writes in their listing: “I am not responsible for customs delays and arrests of your country!”

The packages available on eBay in the UK are being sold by individuals in Russia for around £30 for 20 pills; in Russia, they cost around £1.50 a pack, so the average markup is around 1,900 per cent. It is unlikely that the Arbidol pills being sold are fake, because they are so cheap to buy in Russia that creating fake pills would be more expensive.

Ebay UK responded that the company “has been employing a combination of digital and manual surveillance tools to remove products marketed with the term ‘coronavirus’, which violates our policies regarding making unsubstantiated health claims”. The listings were then removed.

Beyond the obvious risk of taking unregulated, unlicensed medications that may not even have dosage instructions in their own language, buyers also face a financial risk. While eBay offers buyer protection, other websites are more risky – previous research by the MHRA has shown that a very high proportion of credit cards used to buy drugs from unlicensed online pharmacies are then cloned and used for other purchases.

Last week, Facebook told Business Insider it was banning adverts “that refer to the coronavirus and create a sense of urgency, like implying a limited supply, or guaranteeing a cure”, and Russia’s own Federal Antimonopoly Service says it has received complaints over radio advertising for Arbidol that claims it can be used to treat or prevent Covid-19. Web searches for Arbidol took off sharply as news of the coronavirus epidemic spread.

Arbidol is far from the only unlicensed medication that websites make available to people in the UK. As we’ve shown before, there has been a steep but largely unreported rise in people self-prescribing drugs bought online. Online prescribing services use doctors based abroad to issue prescriptions that are legally valid in the UK but which are issued without proper consultation or the knowledge of the patient’s GP. Addiction treatment centres have reported huge rises in patients presenting with addictions to prescription drugs, such as opioid painkillers, which are widely sold online in this way. If the coronavirus epidemic puts sufficient strain on our health services that people cannot access treatment for other conditions, we may see an epidemic of self-medication, too.

[Updated 11 March 2020: Following the publication of this article, all listings for Arbidol were removed from eBay UK. Unlicensed medicines continue to be widely available through other websites.]