In recent weeks, the Internet has been filled with publications offering drugs to “cure and protect from the coronavirus,” despite the fact that official agencies have not yet approved any specific remedy to cure it. The sale of counterfeit health products has exploded, especially on social networks, where 58% of the supply of these substances is found. They can also be found on e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, Ebay and, especially, Alibaba, according to a study carried out by the company Smart Protection, which is collaborating with European organizations to detect counterfeit medicines and health products in high demand.
These platforms offer the possibility of easily acquiring medicines that should only be available by prescription from legal pharmacies. “But in reality what they are selling is a counterfeit medicine, without the correct active principle or even with adulterated or toxic active ingredients for health, but with the appearance and packaging of the authorized medicine that it imitates”, alerts the Organization of Consumers and Users. The Spanish Agency for Medicines and Health Products and the European Medicines Agency have also warned about the danger of buying these counterfeit medicines.
Still, sales have increased in the countries worst hit by the pandemic. In March, online sales platforms in China grabbed the largest number of new sellers to date. “They are, for the most part, scammers who target a specific audience and promote their articles with labels directly related to the coronavirus crisis,” explains Smart Protection. On March 23, the day Boris Johnson decreed confinement in the UK, the supply of illegal drugs on Ebay doubled. In Amazon Italy, sales of medicines have multiplied by five since the confinement began and Amazon Spain is the platform of the electronic giant that concentrates the largest number of fake medicines with more than 4,000 results in searches, according to data collected by Smart Protection . A few weeks ago, the e-commerce giant was already forced to intervene in hundreds of publications of disinfectant masks and gels that had inflated their price to take advantage of high demand.
The star substances in this illegal online business are arbidol, hydroxychloroquine and faviparir. Appealing to its supposed effects to alleviate Covid-19, these three antivirals are the ones that are most fraudulently promoted on the Internet, mainly on the Alibaba platform, according to Smart Protection. The company has monitored 13 drugs in total, in addition to tests to detect Covid-19 and medical supplies such as masks.
In most cases, a simple search with the product name leads to hundreds of offers where users can buy even by the pound. However, the use of codes to locate medications has also been extended. Specific keywords are used in order to avoid the control mechanisms established by the platforms themselves. For example, the code 155213-67-5 is used as a keyword to locate ritonavir and 1.809249-37-3 corresponds to remdesivir. Other keywords are also used to refer to the coronavirus, such as “Korona Virus”, “Wuhan Virus” or “Corona 19”.
The market on social media is slightly different. Profiles that offer fake drugs have been created recently (they are one or two weeks old) and offer links to buy products that lead to fraudulent pages. “They post a post telling about the benefits of the medicine and direct you to a URL where they ask for personal and bank details,” explains Carlos Jiménez, product manager for Smart Protection.
In the past few weeks, his company has found that many Instagram posts that sell and promote some of the monitored medications, especially arbidol and favilavir, are being removed. “Many accounts have been created from the name of the masks” KN95 / FFP2 / N95 “, which, although with few followers, have managed to create up to 463,000 contents on this social network,” explains the company. By product type, Twitter is the network with the largest number of publications that offer active ingredients, while Instagram is for masks and the diagnostic test.
“What we are finding are drugs that are distributed illegally. If you buy any of its components, nobody assures you that it works correctly or even that it is anything else ”, Jiménez explains. Smart Protection is responsible for tracking the Internet and detecting the illegal distribution of audiovisual content such as movies or series and products such as clothing. Its clients include large companies such as Universal, Mcaffe or the Spanish Mr. Wonderful.
“What we do is imitate the search that a person would do to locate a specific product on the pages that distribute it,” says Jiménez. “We look for our clients’ products on the Internet and the artificial intelligence, semantic processing and machine learning systems we work with help us identify whether what the portal is advertising is being illegally distributed or not.” To find out, they take into account parameters such as the website where it is distributed (if it is an official page or a pirated one) and the price (if it is below what the official client says it costs).
This same system is what they have used to track the supply of medicines on the Internet. “We are in constant contact with the authorities and this collaboration has arisen from this. Seeing how the offer of products related to the coronavirus was growing online, we began to monitor the medications, masks and tests and we passed that information on to the security forces, ”says Jiménez.
Medicines that can be sold ‘online’
The sale of medicines over the Internet in Spain is highly regulated and there are some basic requirements that must be met in order to be sold legally. “Only pharmacies that have an establishment open to the public with a registered pharmacist can market medications online. Furthermore, they can only sell those that either do not need a prescription or are not prepared by the pharmacist himself ”, explains Albert Chiva, lawyer and partner at Área Digital Abogados. “If you look, the strongest thing they sell is gelocatyl and ibuprofen.” In addition, all pharmacies that want to have their own online business must notify the public administration, which collects the information and draws up a list of establishments that are allowed to sell medications online.
“Pages that are selling without these requirements do so without having the necessary administrative licenses. It would be necessary to see if the substances comply with the regulations that are established, because if they were not committing a crime against public health, “adds Chiva. “One of the keys to detecting illegal offers is knowing that pharmacists cannot advertise to sell medicines without inspection and control by the competent authorities and must comply with current applicable regulations. Anyone promoting them is probably making an illegal sale. Analyzing each case, one could speak of misleading advertising or even a scam. “