A Gresham man made his first court appearance this week on charges that he illegally purchased and attempted to sell chloroquine, the active pharmaceutical ingredient in prescription drugs used to treat malaria, but which has also gained notoriety in recent weeks as a possible treatment for Covid-19.
Matthew Owens, 42, allegedly smuggled the misbranded drugs from China, according to a release Monday from the Office of the U.S. Attorney for Oregon.
The investigation began on April 13, when Homeland Security agents intercepted a package containing 122.8 grams of a white powder at a FedEx facility in Memphis, Tenn. The package originated from a “Hangzhou Weishi Electronic Commerce Co Ltd” in Xiaoshan, China, and was addressed to Owens’ Gresham apartment.
Federal prosecutors said the enclosed substance was declared as “ammonium polyphosphate,” an inorganic compound used as a food additive, emulsifier and fertilizer, but was later determined to be chloroquine.
An invoice included with the substance described it as a “sample” having “no commercial value,” language that investigators said is commonly used by illegal importers in an attempt to avoid detection.
As the investigation continued, special agents from Homeland and the FDA learned that two additional shipments were sent from China to Owens, who is not a licensed physician, pharmacist or registered nurse.
One contained resveratrol, a chemical commonly found in dietary supplements. The second contained polyacrylamide, a chemical compound primarily used in wastewater treatment, but also as an ingredient in certain cosmetics.
Federal investigators executed a search at Owens’ apartment on April 27, seizing laptop computers, cell phones, an unopened bag of clear, empty capsules for encapsulating pharmaceuticals, a foil bag containing an unknown powder and a material safety data sheet for polyacrylamide.
A forensic search of Owens’ cell phones and Facebook Messenger messages associated with his cell phone number revealed conversations discussing the purchase and receipt of chloroquine from Alibaba.com, the world’s largest online business-to-business trading platform.
Other messages discussed the offering of chloroquine for sale as a treatment for Covid-19, according to investigators.
“It’s unconscionable that individuals would prioritize their own greed over the health of others, particularly during a public health crisis,” said Eben Roberts, Acting Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Seattle. “Illicit distribution of narcotics puts unsuspecting consumers at serious risk.”
“Drugs that are produced and distributed outside the FDA’s oversight present the prospect of harm to the public health,” agreed Special Agent in Charge Lisa L. Malinowski, of FDA Office of Criminal Investigations in Los Angeles. “The FDA’s drug approval process is designed to ensure that patients receive safe and effective drugs.”
Owens made his first appearance in federal court Monday. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 23 years in federal prison, 3 years’ supervised release, and a $500,000 fine.
In March, the FDA issued a public notice warning of the dangers of using chloroquine phosphate and warning the public to be wary of anyone claiming to have a product to prevent or cure Covid-19.
This notice followed the story of an Arizona man who died after taking a form of chloroquine used to treat aquariums, in an apparent attempt to self-medicate for the novel coronavirus.