As the number Covid-19 patients multiplies, people have been rushing to pharmacies looking for vitamins and immune boosters. The requests are not based on a doctor’s prescription but rather advice and suggestions collected from videos shared on social media outlining which vitamins to take to boost their immune system and which medicines are prescribed if someone is diagnosed with the virus. This has led to a shortage of some vitamins and medicines required for treating the coronavirus, except at hospitals and health units affiliated to the Ministry of Health and Population.
Ahmed Abdel-Gawad, owner of a private pharmacy, told Al-Ahram Weekly demand for immune-boosting medications and vitamins has recently increased, with the demand for vitamins, iron and zinc products increasing by more than 300 per cent. “I don’t sell these medicines anymore if ordered by phone. I only sell them to patients who visit the pharmacy, especially customers I know,” Abdel-Gawad said.
Many pharmacists are like Abdel-Gawad, selling immune medications and vitamins to their own patients who have a prescription. “There are medicines which are prescribed for Covid-19 patients. They are available only at Health Ministry hospitals and certain pharmacies,” said a pharmacy owner on condition of anonymity, adding the pharmacies which are allowed to sell these medicines do not sell them except to Covid-19 patients who have a stamped prescription from a hospital that is affiliated to the Health Ministry.
Khaled Megahed, spokesman for the Ministry of Health, pointed out that the ministry is currently distributing medical kits which contain medication for the virus at the country’s health units and hospitals to be given to patients who will be under house quarantine. “The kits comprise everything required for treating Covid-19 and is sufficient for one week. At the end of the first week, the patient should go to the hospital or health unit for a check-up. If the patient still needs further medication, he will be provided with another kit,” Megahed said.
He added that the ministry is working on a new medical protocol for Covid-19 patients but has yet to be approved and needs further tests and trials.
Abdel-Gawad noted people should not panic and the virus could easily be contained if the patient follows medical instructions closely.
Sara Ahmed, a pharmacist who works at a private pharmacy, told the Weekly that sometimes the market witnesses a shortage in a certain kind of vitamin or immune booster. “In such cases we suggest alternatives for the customer who most of the time agrees and buys the alternative,” Ahmed said, adding the increase in demand for these types of medicines led to a shortage of supply in pharmacies. There was enough stock for three months. “Now the stock is enough for only one month due to the high demand,” added Ahmed.
Khaireya Ebeid, a pulmonologist, called on people not to stock up on vitamins and the like. She warned that “the excessive and uncontrolled use of these medicines could cause further medical complications such as kidney stones and kidney failure in severe cases as well as liver problems.”
Mahfouz Ramzi, a member of the Cairo Pharmacists Syndicate and head of the syndicate’s pharmaceutical manufacturing committee, said that due to the coronavirus crisis and what is being published on social media about the use of immunomodulators and vitamins, the demand for them increased greatly, thus causing their shortage in the markets.
Pharmaceutical companies, according to Ramzi, offer specific quantities for each type of medicine according to the volume of use and need for it, but the accelerating demand has eaten into the stock of these drugs. “The usual market size for a specific item in the market is 10,000 boxes per month. When suddenly this demand increases to 30,000 boxes a month, then the stock is expected to disappear sooner,” said Ramzi who added that Egyptian pharmaceutical companies usually produce 60 million packs of vitamin C, “but due to the escalating demand we need at least 120 million packs a year.”
According to Ramzi, pharmaceutical companies need at least three months to produce further amounts of vitamin C, iron, zinc and other immunomodulators at a time when the pharmaceutical industry depends on imported material. “Some 99 per cent of medicine present in the Egyptian market is locally manufactured, though the raw material for manufacturing them is imported from Europe, India and China,” Ramzi said.
Ebeid said Covid-19 medicines, whether vitamins, minerals, antibiotics, anticoagulant, antibiotics or antivirals are used by the Ministry of Health to treat patients who suffer from coronavirus, with certain doses and for a specific period. “The frequent use of them by citizens without any medical prescription or supervision may cause health problems especially when taken excessively. There is no need for that.”
Megahed denied allegations that the pharmaceutical industry in Egypt has been affected due to the lack of imported raw materials from China or any other reason. “There are sufficient strategic stocks of various medicines. The government is keen on providing all the required medicines to citizens which are locally manufactured,” said Megahed, adding the ministry is planning to meet patients’ needs and reduce deficiencies.
Manal Salem, the Health Ministry’s coordinator of the Covid-19 committee, said the ministry has launched a system for early prediction of drug shortages which is directly connected with production and distribution companies to identify drug shortages and swiftly solve them, and to prevent their absence in the market. That is no small feat given the number of circulated medicines in the Egyptian market is around 12,000 items, Salem pointed out.
According to Salem, ministry officials are keen on providing all patients across the country with the required medicine, removing the causes of shortages and tightening control over the distribution of these medicines.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly