Ernesto Ruiz Lopez, a pharmacist in Madrid, says he’s never seen anything like this. He can’t get protective masks, gloves or hand sanitizer from his regular suppliers, because they won’t pay the sky-high prices, increasing at every stage of the chain, to obtain them. And he’s wary of the intermediary sellers he calls “absolute pirates” trying to profit from shortages during the global coronavirus pandemic.
Spain is one of the worst-affected countries in the world, with more than 5,000 deaths attributed to coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University. Severe limits on people’s movements here have been extended for a further two weeks and the authorities are trying to source sufficient protective equipment for a health service that is already very stretched.
Ruiz Lopez, who has owned a pharmacy near the Spanish capital’s Retiro Park for eight years, says his distributors won’t pay skyrocketing prices for these vital products. Masks are now fetching three or four times their normal price, while gloves are going for about double their usual value, he says. Other suppliers who have them in stock have abruptly raised prices, such as a 20% jump for hand sanitizer – and demand payment in advance.
“In the end, you would pay twice as much for something you know is worth half of that and you take the risk of not knowing what you’ll actually get,” Ruiz Lopez told CNN.
But nor can he afford to work unprotected. Ruiz Lopez and his five employees wear masks and gloves and limit the number of customers in the pharmacy to just two, one at each counter, while the others wait outside, some wearing masks and gloves themselves.
In recent days, Ruiz Lopez says, some of the prices have moderated, which he thinks may be due to the police crackdown on companies and individuals exploiting these products. Police have publicized seizures with videos on their social media accounts, which has prompted some distributors to move their goods more quickly, the pharmacist says.
Like many countries, Spain is trying to physically combat smuggling and illegal sales of masks and gloves to combat coronavirus, or Covid-19, as well as limit the damage done by websites claiming to sell drugs that can treat the virus.
Last week, Spain’s Civil Guard [the country’s national military police] announced it had seized around 69,000 masks and more than 5,000 goggles and gloves at airports and ports of entry. Some of the equipment was due to be auctioned online. Around 7,000 masks had been imported from Ecuador were impounded in Gijón, northern Spain, while a further 11,000 masks were impounded at an airport in the Canary Islands. The most significant seizures, however, have taken place in Madrid, where around 44,000 masks have been recovered.
There’s also the issue of shoddy or counterfeit products that pose a serious risk to potential patients, and these are battles being fought across Europe. Italy’s financial police has also begun checks to identify commercial fraud and fraudulent price gouging. On Friday they announced a raid in the town of Piana, where 900 kits for the diagnosis of coronavirus were seized. The kits lacked national or European certification and were being offered, illegally, for sale online.
On Thursday, the Spanish Agency for Medication and Health Products released a warning about treating the coronavirus with counterfeit drugs bought from illegal websites. The statement said that counterfeit drugs can pose a serious health risk, as they may contain undeclared active ingredients at different doses, or include harmful substances that could worsen disease.
The agency reminded people “that there is currently no specific authorized treatment for Covid-19,” adding that medication for symptoms of the virus, such as fever, should also be checked with a doctor or pharmacist, and patients should only buy medicines from authorized pharmacy websites.
The European Medicines Agency published similar advice earlier in the week, warning that “vendors may claim that their products can treat or prevent Covid-19 or may appear to provide easy access to legitimate medicines that are otherwise not readily available. Such products are likely to be falsified medicines.”
The number of global coronavirus cases has now topped 600,000, with more than 27,000 deaths. At his Madrid pharmacy, Ruiz Lopez is disappointed by these attempts to exploit a horrific global situation. “It’s a shame that supply and demand has taken a dominant position over health criteria. That’s the sad and regrettable part.”
CNN’s Ingrid Formanek in Spain and Valentina Di Donato in Rome contributed to this report.