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World5 hours ago (Jan 29, 2021 10:00AM ET)

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian authorities have seized 27 boxes of the antiviral drug remdesivir from a woman at an airport in Cucuta who said the drugs were a coronavirus vaccine, officials said on Friday.

The boxes seized by police contained a version of the drug called Bemsivir with a value of $18,000 on the black market, Colombia's tax and customs police (POLFA) said in a statement.

Bemsivir, produced by Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd, is a generic form of remdesivir, a COVID-19 treatment developed by Gilead Sciences Inc (NASDAQ:).

"During a routine check that was carried out on Thursday at the airport in Cucuta, the boxes with the medicine were found in the luggage of a woman who said it was the vaccine against COVID-19," POLFA director Brigadier General Gustavo Franco said in a telephone interview.

"We made inquiries with the authorities and they informed us the drug isn't authorized (in Colombia). It appears there are groups who want to take advantage of the pandemic by deceiving people and putting their health at risk," he added.

The woman was intending to take the antivirals to Medellin, Colombia's second city, POLFA said.

Cucuta is a city that sits on Colombia's border with Venezuela and police are investigating whether the antivirals were smuggled into the country from its neighbor via illegal crossings, POLFA said.

Criminal groups trying to con people with the drugs are likely behind such smuggling incidents, POLFA said.

Remdesivir is not designed to prevent COVID-19 and a World Health Organisation-led trial found it failed to improve survival rates although others dispute that conclusion.

Seizures of medical contraband rose 41% in 2020, compared with the year before, the statement added.

So far in 2021 more than 218,000 items of medical contraband or dubious origin have been seized, POLFA said. The seized goods are valued at over 570 million pesos ($159,000) but could be worth three times as much on the black market.

($1 = 3,585.44 Colombian pesos)

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