Darkweb Seizes on Trump’s Nod to Unproven Malaria Drug

Adam Rawnsley
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving sellers on encrypted darknet markets—usually used for selling hard drugs in anonymity—to offer chloroquine and scarce N95 protective masks for sale.

The Daily Beast searched Empire Market, an encrypted site that uses cryptocurrency and the Tor network to anonymize sellers and buyers, and found multiple advertisements for the drug and protective masks available in bulk by the thousands.

For now, the advertisements remain few, but the presence of what was once an obscure anti-malaria drug on a prominent encrypted platform for sales of cocaine, heroin, and other narcotics highlights how the unproven hope for chloroquine, stoked by President Trump, has rocketed the drug to global prominence and made supplies scarce for those who truly need it. 

Advertisements for chloroquine on Empire Market offer to make the drug available to customers around the world, but at least one indicates that its supply originates in the U.S., where the drug is only available by prescription. Some other countries allow over-the-counter purchases. 

Prices on four different posts for the drug ranged from $1,000 for a package of 250 milligram tablets to as little as a dollar for a 30-day supply (plus shipping). Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the drug was cheap—in some cases just $12 for a five-day dose—and widely available, but supplies have become scarce following Trump’s endorsement, as even doctors have begun to hoard the pills.

Sellers have tried to spice up their advertisements with unproven claims like “it kills coronavirus” and links to articles that cite Trump’s endorsement of the drug. The earliest of the four chloroquine advertisements reviewed by The Daily Beast dated to March 21, just two days after a press conference last week where Trump claimed the drug had “very promising early results” and erroneously stated that the FDA would make it available to treat COVID-19 “almost immediately.”

To the embarrassment of public health officials, Trump has gotten out ahead of the scientific evidence and proclaimed chloroquine to be a drug with “a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”

FDA Urges Caution After Trump Says Malaria Drug Will Be Available to Coronavirus Patients ‘Almost Immediately’

One advertisement from a seller who retails black tar heroin, crack cocaine, xanax, and numerous other illegal drugs offered a package deal of chloroquine and azithromycin—two drugs which featured in a hotly debated French study tweeted approvingly by the American president. 

Dr. Didier Raoult of the University of Marseilles recently published a draft of a study involving 20 patients infected with COVID-19, six of whom also received a dose of the common antibiotic azithromycin in combination with the anti-malaria drug. The small sample size of the study and the fact that four people were removed from it (one died and three had to be placed in intensive care) have led many scientists to urge extreme caution about overinterpreting the findings. 

As of yet, there is no clinical evidence sufficient to prove that chloroquine, or the closely related hydroxychloroquine, are effective against COVID-19, either to prevent infection or fight it once a patient is sick. 

Taking chloroquine in the absence of a valid medical need and a doctor’s prescription is both socially reckless and dangerous to one’s health. But since Trump hyped the drug’s effectiveness without evidence, some have rushed to take the drug, wrongly believing it to be a consequence-free miracle cure. Three people in Nigeria have already overdosed from taking the drug without a prescription or medical direction and one man in Arizona died and his wife was sickened after the two took chloroquine phosphate intended for use in cleaning aquariums.

In the Empire darknet market, demand appears to be much lighter, with only one sale thus far. 

But the rush to secure supplies of the drug has also made it hard to get for those with a valid reason to take it, including immunocompromised people with lupus who are especially vulnerable in the pandemic.

Darknet markets rely on the encrypted Tor network, which disguises the location of a site’s server and users visiting it through special browser software. Since the debut of Tor’s hidden services, a handful of sites have cropped up to sell illicit drugs through the mail in exchange for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. 

Law enforcement agencies have at times been able to unmask users and administrations on darknet markets, leading to arrests and the seizure of entire sites, like Silk Road. Empire Market, founded in February 2018, is one of the last large-scale darknet drug markets still running after law enforcement seized the Silk Road, AlphaBay, Wall Street and Hansa markets and another, Dream Market, shut down voluntarily.

In addition to Empire’s illicit pharmaceutical offerings, the COVID-19 pandemic has also spurred a number of advertisements for personal protective equipment (PPE) like N95 masks, which are desperately needed by health-care workers and other first responders to protect them from the virus. 

One of the sellers offering chloroquine posted an ad for bulk shipments of N95 face masks. The ad offers scaled pricing depending on the size of the order, down to $2 a mask for those purchasing between two and three thousand of the masks. In a press conference on Sunday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the shortage of PPE has forced states to bid against each other and driven up the price from legitimate vendors to as much as $7 a mask for N95 equipment. 

The private sale of N95 masks remains legal in the U.S. if socially scorned in light of the shortages faced by health-care workers fighting the pandemic. Large e-retailers like Amazon and eBay recently banned the sale of medical-grade personal protective equipment on their platforms. 

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.