Online sales of unapproved COVID-19 drugs puts health ministry on alert

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The building that houses the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, in May.

Internet sites marketing COVID-19 treatments that have not been approved in Japan have prompted the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to strengthen surveillance.

As the use of unapproved drugs could pose health risks, the ministry and experts are calling for caution.

Marketing drugs and medical devices that have not been approved in Japan is prohibited under the law on pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

However, ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug that has been touted as an effective COVID-19 treatment but has not been approved in Japan, is being sold online with misleading statements referring to it as a possible “miracle cure.”

According to a tally by Kazuko Kimura, a specially appointed professor at Kanazawa University, and Naoko Yoshida, an assistant professor at the university, seven drugs that are not approved in Japan, including ivermectin, were being sold online as COVID-19 treatments from April last year to March this year.

“The distribution of counterfeit or defective products may lead to health problems,” Kimura said, calling for caution.

According to a survey conducted by Kimura and others in 2019, the number of people who had imported drugs doubled in the past decade.

The availability of unapproved drugs is believed to have expanded further since last year, following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The ministry’s Compliance and Narcotics Division has asked internet service providers to block sites that post advertisements for unapproved drugs among other violations.

In fiscal 2020, 504 websites were blocked, up 60% from fiscal 2018. However, additional countermeasures may be needed according to a person familiar with the matter, who said, “It’s a cat-and-mouse game as [after sites are blocked] new sites that are thought to be run by the same operators quickly appear.”