Australian Border Force officials are warning Australians not to import unproven coronavirus treatments after an increase in mail shipments being seized by authorities.
The Australian Border Force (ABF) on Monday reminded the public it is screening medical supplies coming into the country, revealing that prohibited substances are being imported by Australians at an alarming rate, under the belief they can help in protecting them against the coronavirus.
ABF officers said they have seen a significant spike in detections of the herbal medicine Ephedra and the highly politicised drug Hydroxychloroquine.
“Every day, ABF officers are on the lookout for these medications and when they are found, they will be seized at the border,” ABF Assistant Commissioner Erin Dale said.
Ephedra occurs naturally in the Chinese herb Ma Huang. The speed-like drug contains the chemical ephedrine, an amphetamine-like compound closely related to adrenaline. It is believed by some to be able to ease the symptoms of COVID-19.
Illegal Ephedra being imported in large quantities
Ephedra is a prohibited import in Australia because it’s a precursor to making Ephedrine, which can be used to manufacture the drug methamphetamine, colloquially known as ‘ice’.
The use of ephedra as a weight loss supplement became well publicised when it was found to be a factor in the death of 23-year-old Major League Baseball pitcher Steve Bechler in 2003.
Prior to the pandemic, minimal quantities of Ephedra were seen at the Australian border with just two kilograms of the drug detected in the first three months of 2020. Sine then, officers have detected over 66 kilograms of the drug in April and May alone, the department says.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) says Ephedra has been linked to serious adverse effects including high blood pressure, heart attacks, muscle disorders, seizures, strokes and death.
The ABF has seen a spike in the number of prohibited imports like Ephedra – a traditional herbal medicine purported to ease the symptoms of COVID-19. Ephedra can also be used to make Ephedrine, a precursor of ‘ice’, and can cause serious side effects. https://t.co/rWwKJ7yq5W pic.twitter.com/AKSiJHFeoq— ABF (@AusBorderForce) August 3, 2020
Those caught importing it into Australia face a maximum penalty of 25 years’ jail and/or a fine not exceeding $1,110,000.
Trump-endorsed Hydroxychloroquine being imported
The ABF also revealed on Monday there has been a jump in Hydroxychloroquine imports this year, with officers seizing more than 26,000 tablets between January and late June.
The drug is an antimalarial medication and is also used to treat lupus and arthritis but has become touted a potential cure by right-wing politicians including Donald Trump and internet conspiracy theorists, despite limited evidence.
Unauthorised importations are referred to the TGA for assessment, the ABF said in a statement Monday.
The drug has the potential to cause significant side effects and death in patients with heart problems and has not been shown to combat the novel coronavirus in a small number of human trials.
Known side effects of the drug include nausea, diarrhoea, weight loss, dizziness, mood changes, nervousness, irritability, itching and hair loss, according to pharmaceutical manufacturers.
A video last week of a doctor in the US promoting it as a cure was pulled down by major social media platforms. The doctor who made the claim has a history of promoting bizarre beliefs including in exorcism, witchcraft and the notion that the US government being run by aliens.
Despite many in the medical establishment warning over its use, many politicians on the right continue to furiously advocate for it, including Liberal MP Craig Kelly who last night published a number of lengthy posts on Facebook in support of the drug and suggested Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews should face prison for not promoting it to Victorians during the current outbreak.
On Monday last week, Google search results for ‘Hydroxychloroquine’ by Australian users in the past seven days were 2,200 per cent higher than usual, according to the company.
I’m not going to do Craig Kelly the favour of reposting his offensive & dangerous FB message on Hydroxychloroquine. Suffice it to say there is one body which determines drug safety & efficacy & it’s the TGA. Trumpian rants by Liberal MPs have no place in fighting this pandemic.— Chris Bowen (@Bowenchris) August 2, 2020
Despite having some backers in the medical community, authorities warn Australians against trying to import it, or other drugs not obtained through medical professionals.
“There are serious health risks associated with taking medication that has not been prescribed for you by a medical health professional,” Assistant Commissioner Dale said.
“It is illegal to bring these substances into Australia without the proper permits and I strongly urge Australians against importing these items.”
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