Brazil’s pharmacies sold over 52 million “covid kit” pills during the pandemic

Country/area: Brazil

Organisation: Agência Pública

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 20/4/2021

Credit: Bianca Muniz, Bruno Fonseca

Biography: Bruno Fonseca is an editor and multimedia reporter at Agência Pública, the first non-profit investigative news agency in Brazil. Fonseca has bachelor and master degrees from the Federal University of Minas Gerais and attended the Thomson Reuters Journalism Course on Multimedia Reporting.
Bianca Muniz is a journalism student at the University of São Paulo and a data journalism intern at Agência Pública.

Project description:

The report assessed public data regarding the sale of industrialized controlled drugs and antimicrobial medications from January 2018 to March 2021 and found that Brazilian pharmacies had sold over 52 million tablets of the so-called “covid kit”. Our investigation also revealed that hydroxychloroquine, a drug largely promoted by Bolsonaro, had sold more than 1.3 million boxes in Brazil. Peak sales of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were in March 2021, the worst month in covid-19 deaths in the country. We also found that after a statement by Bolsonaro, the government simplified rules for reusing prescriptions for the purchase of the drugs.

Impact reached:

The article showed the impacts of President Bolsonaro’s promotion of the consumption of drugs with no proven efficacy against covid-19 in both speeches and actions. The report was republished by 46 national media outlets and websites and was cited or backlinked at least 22 times.

Techniques/technologies used:

We exported public data regarding the sale of industrialized controlled drugs and antimicrobials from January 2018 to March 2021. The period considered for the analysis regarding the pandemic was from March 2020 to March 2021. We filtered sales of drugs with the active ingredients azithromycin, ivermectin, nitazoxanide, and hydroxychloroquine sulfate. We cleaned the bases and calculated the number of tablets per package (of the drugs sold in this pharmaceutical form). We consulted the data of pharmacovigilance notifications from The National Health Surveillance Agency between April 1, 2019 and April 1, 2021. We filtered the drugs with the active ingredients azithromycin, ivermectin, nitazoxanide, and hydroxychloroquine/hydroxychloroquine sulfate.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part was working with a database as large as that of the medicines, which besides having a huge amount of entries (altogether 52 million drugs from the “covid kit” alone), required a lot of work to standardize and calculate, for example, the difference between entries in pills or boxes. The work should be selected for providing unprecedented information from public sources which showed the extent of the sale of drugs with no proven effect against covid-19 in the middle of a health crisis.

What can others learn from this project?

Journalists can learn how to work with databases on drug sales, not only for the drugs in the covid kit, but for any other controlled-sale drug in the country. In this way, it is possible to develop public health stories with impact and public interest.

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