After remdesivir, other sought-after items sold in the black market for profit are oxygen cylinders, concentrators, and flowmeters.(MINT_PRINT)
After remdesivir, other sought-after items sold in the black market for profit are oxygen cylinders, concentrators, and flowmeters.(MINT_PRINT)

Antivirals, oxygen biggest draw in Delhi's Covid black market

  • In the last three weeks, the police have busted at least 75 cases and arrested more than 90 people who were either hoarding these items or selling them at exorbitant rates.
By Prawesh Lama, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAY 06, 2021 04:48 AM IST

A flourishing black market of medicines and medical devices has come up ever since the ongoing Covid-19 wave has overburdened the health care system, leading to desperate calls for hospital beds, oxygen, antiviral injections, and devices such as oxygen concentrators, flowmeters, and pulse oximeters.

In the last three weeks, the police have busted at least 75 cases and arrested more than 90 people who were either hoarding these items or selling them at exorbitant rates.

An HT analysis of these cases shows that remdesivir is still the most sought-after medicine across the city, and it is being sold at anywhere between Rs.25,000-50,000 for a single vial while the original price is between Rs.899-3,490 depending on the brand. Investigating officials, who have arrested people for hoarding and selling the medicine, said that the relatives of many Covid patients are ready to pay any amount for it because it is hailed on social media as a “magic cure”.

The demand for this antiviral drug is such that there have been at least three cases of nurses stealing it from hospitals to sell it at high prices.

“On Tuesday, we arrested a contractual nurse from a prominent hospital in south Delhi. She had stolen the remdesivir injection vial from the hospital, forged the records to show that she had given it to patients, and later passed it on to her contacts to sell it. She does not have a record but was lured by greed. She and her gang were selling the medicine for 70,000 each,” said a senior police officer privy to the investigation. He added that they found enough buyers even at that price.

The cases also show that most of the people arrested so far for such crimes are those connected to hospitals -- a doctor, security guards, nurses, lab technicians -- or are medical salespersons, chemists, and drivers who work for private ambulance and cab services. In their interrogation report, the motive, as mentioned by the police is usually the same -- “earn quick money.”

One investigating officer, who asked not to be named, said that, barring a few, most of them do not have a previous criminal record but “wanted to earn quick money”.

After remdesivir, other sought-after items sold in the black market for profit are oxygen cylinders, concentrators, and flowmeters.

The cases show that both filled and empty cylinders are in high demand. Police have seized at least 220 cylinders, 225 concentrators, and 82 oxygen flow regulators.

A police officer from the New Delhi district, who busted a case recently, said: “Oxygen concentrators are expensive. Not everyone can hoard in bulk, and sell it later. So, some people are trying to make profits quickly by selling small oxygen canisters. We arrested a medical supplier who was selling oxygen canisters for Rs.5,100 when the price of the canister as mentioned on the can was only Rs.400. That man had recently sold an oxygen concentrator for around Rs.1,25,000, more than twice its price.”

At a time when several fraudsters have been found luring relatives of Covid-19 patients, police are calling numbers circulating in WhatsApp groups, or posing as decoy customers outside hospitals. In one such operation, a team from the New Friends Colony police station arrested two men on the road outside the Escorts and Holy Family hospitals.

“The price of a 10-litre oxygen cylinder is around 6,000. These two men had bought a cylinder from their contact in Haryana for Rs.25,000, and planned to sell it for Rs.63,000. They were looking for needy people when we arrested them,” said an inspector who was part of the operation.

And it isn’t just medicines or medical items. Ambulance drivers, too, have been caught overcharging people to transport Covid-19 patients or bodies. On Wednesday, police shared two cases in which a driver had charged 6,000 for a 5km ride to transport a Covid-19 patient between Deep Chand Bandhu hospital and Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh.

In another case, an ambulance driver charged Rs.20,000 for a 10km ride from Jaitpur to AIIMS. Police said these were ambulance cabs, and not those with life support systems.

Deputy commissioner of police Chinmoy Biswal, who is also the police’s spokesperson, said in all police districts, teams have been assigned tasks to trace people who are taking advantage of the pandemic by hoarding items, selling them at higher prices, or cheating the people desperately looking for medical help.

“Our teams are sending decoys and calling such people offering to sell medicines. Our teams are also posted outside hospitals. We will book them under stringent sections. We have registered at least 75 cases against at least 91 people. We are proactive, and will act sternly,” Biswal said.

He said people can complain on the police helpline 011- 23469900

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