In Bolivian city, people buy fake - and toxic - virus cure

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A man shows bottles of chlorine dioxide he purchased at a pharmacy in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Friday, July 17, 2020. Long lines form every morning in Cochabamba, one of the Bolivian cities hardest hit by the new coronavirus pandemic, as people wait to buy small bottles of chlorine dioxide, a toxic bleaching agent that has been falsely touted as a cure for COVID-19 and myriad other diseases. (AP Photo/Dico Solis)

COCHABAMBA – Long lines form every morning in one of the Bolivian cities hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic as desperate people wait to buy small bottles of chlorine dioxide, a toxic bleaching agent that has been falsely touted as a cure for COVID-19 and myriad other diseases.

The rush in the city of Cochabamba to buy a disinfectant known to cause harm to those who ingest it comes even after the Bolivian Health Ministry warned of its dangers and said at least five people were poisoned after taking chlorine dioxide in La Paz, the capital.

Dr. Antonio Viruez, who is treating the five at a hospital, said one incorrectly believed he had COVID-19 and developed pneumonitis, an inflammation of lung tissue, after taking chlorine dioxide and a medication used to treat parasite infestations. The other patients are improving, he said.

“The Health Ministry cannot risk recommending something that doesn’t have a scientific basis,” said Miguel Ángel Delgado, a senior ministry official.

However, Bolivia’s opposition-controlled congress is promoting the use of chlorine dioxide. Last week, the Senate approved a bill authorizing the emergency “manufacture, marketing, supply and use of chlorine dioxide solution for the prevention and treatment of coronavirus.”

The bill would require the approval of interim President Jeanine Áñez, who is in quarantine after testing positive for the new coronavirus. She has sparred with opposition lawmakers loyal to Evo Morales, the former leader who was forced to resign last year after an election marred by irregularities.

Many fearful residents in Cochabamba, where opposition support is strong, are giving chlorine dioxide a try. Cochabamba has reported about 440 deaths from COVID-19, or one-quarter of the total number of reported deaths in Bolivia. The real toll is believed to be higher.

“I am afraid. I have to try it,” said Andrés Poma, a 34-year-old teacher who is skeptical that beleaguered health services can help him if he gets sick. “What am I going to do? Wait to die at the door of the hospital or at the door of my house?”