Hydroxychloroquine, the controversial drug used in the treatment of COVID-19, is being sold in one drug store in Rivers State, South-South Nigeria, at an outrageous price of N50,000.
Hydroxychloroquine, before now, was essentially used for malaria treatment. It was never known to be this costly, as at then.
The drug began selling at about N3,000 around March in Nigeria during the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus in the country, a pharmacist told PREMIUM TIMES.
Some person who apparently wanted to alert Nigerians on the exorbitant price of the COVID-19 drug took a photo of its pack, with the price tag, name and the telephone contact of the drug store on it, and then got it circulated on WhatsApp over the weekend.
The drug, as shown in the photo, is Zentiva brand, with 60 tablets (200mg) in a pack. The store selling it is Ebus Pharmacy Ltd, at Eastern bypass, Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
The N50,000 price tag attracted outrage from Nigerians who felt it was too high.
Ebus Pharmacy said the retail price of the hydroxychloroquine was dependent on how much money they used in importing it.
"What is your concern about how much I sell what I buy when you don't know how much I bought it?" A man from Ebus Pharmacy told PREMIUM TIMES, Monday, on telephone.
The man refused to disclose his name and position in the drug store. But Truecaller, a phone app, identified him as Boniface Ebugosi.
"Have you checked around here in Port Harcourt, Lagos or Abuja to know the price (of the hydroxychloroquine) before you say it's outrageous? Or is it only hydroxychloroquine that you know the price has changed since COVID-19 came to be?" Mr Ebugosi said, while arguing that the naira was depreciating against the dollar and that it was negatively affecting imports.
He said people were free to buy at other drug stores if they felt Ebus Pharmacy was selling their products at exorbitant prices.
PREMIUM TIMES asked Mr Ebugosi how much his store was selling hydroxychloroquine before now.
"Those things do not hold water," he responded. "What we are saying now is: do you have it? How much is the price? Bring it."
Mr Ebugosi said besides hydroxychloroquine, the prices of other drugs used in COVID-19 treatment, like vitamin C and zinc, have increased in Nigeria.
He said prices of food items too have increased in the country.
Really, the prices of vitamin C and zinc has increased across Nigeria because of COVID-19.
In Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, for instance, most drug stores as of last week were selling at about N5,000, 100 tablets of 100mg zinc in a small container. On Monday, the price suddenly increased to N5,500 in some of the stores in the city.
"At some point it was selling at N8,000," a pharmacist in Uyo told PREMIUM TIMES, Monday evening.
"Before COVID-19 it was N2,000," he added.
"It is not anybody's making. Ebus, as a company which has a name to protect, would want to sell at the cheapest prices so that our customers would remain with us," Mr Ebugosi said of the exorbitant price of hydroxychloroquine at his store.
PREMIUM TIMES' checks at three other drug stores in Port Harcourt showed that they were also selling hydroxychloroquine at about the same amount with Ebus Pharmacy.
One of the stores said they were selling it at N54,000, but had ran out of stock.
Some other stores in the city were selling between N15,000 and N18,000, another brand of hydroxychloroquine which contains 20 tablets in a pack, unlike the brand at Ebus Pharmacy which has 60 tablets.
A federal agency in Nigeria, the Federal Competition & Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) intervened in a similar case in Lagos in March and forced a drug store --- Medmark Pharmacy --- to make a refund to a woman who bought a 500ml hand sanitiser at an exorbitant price of N19,950.
The incident happened at the time many Nigerians were involved in panic-buying of hand sanitiser and face mask because of the Coronavirus.
The woman who felt she was being ripped off said she thought the price of the sanitiser was N1,950.
The head of FCCPC, Babatunde Irukera, told PREMIUM TIMES, Monday evening, that his agency was investigating the sales of hydroxychloroquine at exorbitant price in Port Harcourt.
Ebus Pharmacy was not open on Sunday when operatives from the FCCPC visited it, Mr Irukera said.
The operatives went back to the drug store on Monday, according to Mr Irukera, but hydroxychloroquine was not on the shelf.
The manager of Ebus Pharmacy was said to have declined to give information to operatives on the sales of hydroxychloroquine in the store.
"Our people will be there tomorrow (Tuesday) to check the inventory in the pharmacy," Mr Irukera said.
Mr Irukera said his agency has also received information about a location where hydroxychloroquine was being sold at N75,000 in Victoria Island, Lagos.
He said the agency was conducting surveillance operations on the Lagos location and other locations in Abuja.
A pharmacist in Port Harcourt who did not want his name mentioned in the report attributed the exorbitant price of hydroxychloroquine to a viral video of a U.S-based medical doctor, Stella Immanuel who claimed she has used the drug to successfully treat more than 300 COVID-19 patients in America.
"Nobody needs to get sick. This virus has a cure --- it is called hydroxychloroquine. I have treated over 350 patients and not had one death," Ms Immanuel said in the video, surrounded by other doctors with similar views.
The video, which many people believed was done to promote the U.S President Donald Trump's political ambition, prompted a global discourse especially among medical experts on hydroxychloroquine, but it was quickly taken down by Facebook and Twitter on grounds that it was promoting unproven medical claims.
Mr Trump has been advocating for the use of the anti-malaria drug in the treatment of COVID-19, contrary to the advice of the World Health Organisation and the U.S Food And Drug Administration.
Coronavirus has been on the increase in Nigeria. The number of confirmed cases in the country is 43,841 as of August 2.
Eight hundred and eighty-eight people have died so far from the virus, according to the data from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, while 20,308 have been treated and discharged from hospital.
Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, remains the epicentre of the virus, with 15,267 confirmed cases, followed by Abuja, with 3,972.
Rivers, an oil-producing state with over 5 million population, has 1,829 cases, the fifth highest in the country.
Some states in Nigeria, overwhelmed by the number of cases, have resorted to home-treatment for many COVID-19 patients, and in some cases the patients are asked to procure the drugs for their treatment.
The implication here is that if drug stores arbitrarily fix high prices for COVID-19 drugs, some poor Nigerians face the risk of being excluded from treatment for COVID-19 and may die without getting medical help.