Hoarding of COVID Drugs in Myanmar Causes Prices to Soar

Doctors condemn panic buying of medicines that should be prescribed only to patients in intensive care.
Doctors communicate using walkie-talkies inside the intensive care unit of the Ayeyarwady COVID Center at the Thuwana football stadium in Myanmar's largest city Yangon, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Jan. 1, 2021.

Myanmar’s wealthy are hoarding immunosuppressive and antiviral medications to treat the coronavirus, paying thousands of dollars for them in the country’s poorly regulated pharmaceutical market, while ordinary citizens struggle to buy the drugs, drug sellers and medical professionals told RFA.

Panic buying has caused prices of the immunosuppressive Tocilizumab and the antiviral Remdesivir to skyrocket and triggered shortages, in the face of a third wave of the virus that is surging six months after a military coup plunged the country into turmoil and crippled its already weak health-care system.

As of Friday, the country of 54 million people recorded 348,186 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 3,456 new ones, and 12,879 deaths, including 212 new fatalities, according to figures from the Ministry of Health and Sports.

Medical doctors told RFA that the drugs being bought and sold illegally were only for use by patients in intensive care units (ICUs) with a physician’s prescription.

Affluent people in Myanmar have paid up to 50 million kyats (U.S. $30,000) for Tocilizumab since the second week of July, when the death tolls from third wave of the pandemic reached a record high, doctors said.

The medicine usually costs less than 1 million kyats (U.S. $582), but panic buying and hoarding have caused the price to shoot up, said a doctor who declined to be named for security reasons.

“The medicine is used for ICU patients with severe COVID-19-related conditions. It should not be used for outpatients. As for me, I don’t give this medicine to my patients,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

The physician said that the patients he is treating don’t need Tocilizumab and Remdesivir, medicines, which should only be used in critical cases.

Naing Pyho Aung Win, a physician treating coronavirus patients, said besides significantly reducing the body’s immunity, Tocilizumab aggravates pre-existing diseases and can reactivate viruses such as hepatitis B or tuberculosis that are present in the body, he said.

“All in all, Tocilizumab is not an antibiotic medicine. It should be used only with a doctor’s prescription,” said Naing Pyho Aung Win.

The regular cost of a vial is about 770,000 kyats (U.S. $463), he said. But online shopping platforms that formerly sold mainly clothing are now selling Tocilizumab without supervision, and the price has increased by 25 million kyats or even 50 million kyats per vial.

Naing Pyho Aung Win expressed similar concerns about people misusing Remdesivir, a U.S. drug originally used to treat the Ebola virus, which he said should be administered only to patients over 60 years of age or to people with diseases such as diabetes, renal or liver failure, and HIV/AIDS.

“If the patient is not from one of these risk groups, then Remdesivir should not be used,” he said.

As companies in Myanmar that import medicine from abroad begin to reopen their businesses, medical professionals say they expect to see price drops in a few days, said a third doctor who declined to be named for security reasons.

Some companies had to shut down amid borders closed to trade because of the pandemic, while others shut down due to a lack of supplies or restrictions by local authorities to control the market.

“Many medicine companies are reopening their businesses this month,” he said. “They are now importing many medicines. I think everything will be back to normal in a week or 10 days, [and] the prices will be down to the normal level.”

“Patients are now trying to buy the medicines, when they don’t have enough for food and other living expenses,” the third doctor said.

“There are businessmen who are hoarding the medicine. They stockpiled the medicine and caused price gouging. This is very evil.”

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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