Bolivian Senate approves toxic disinfectant as Covid-19 treatment, against Health Ministry’s warnings

In Bolivia, several lawmakers are fighting to recognize a toxic cleaning agent as a Covid-19 therapy, even as health officials warn it could be deadly.

In the city of Cochabamba, Dionisio Flores displayed two small plastic dropper bottles in his right palm and a larger bottle in his other hand, all of which he said contained chlorine dioxide — a bleach-like substance health officials say is “highly toxic” and could be lethal — but which Flores bought to prevent or treat coronavirus.

He is one of dozens of residents of the Andean city to line up in front of stores to buy the disinfectant for coronavirus treatment, defying the advice of health authorities.

“Authorities say you have to consult with your doctor,” Flores told Reuters. “What doctor, we never had a doctor! Poor people, we don’t have doctors.”

Chlorine dioxide is mostly used to disinfect drinking water supplies and has never been legitimately used or sold for use in or on the human body.

The Bolivian Health Ministry says it is not an effective coronavirus treatment, and has issued strong warnings against experimenting with it. On July 20, the ministry stated on social media that chlorine dioxide’s dangerous effects can include acute liver failure, life-threatening low blood pressure caused by dehydration, severe vomiting and respiratory failure.
A woman buys chlorine dioxide at a pharmacy in Cochabamba on July 17, 2020.
Its warning has been echoed by health authorities around the world. The US Food and Drug Administration has warned against using chlorine dioxide for coronavirus and says they “pose significant risks to patient health.” And the Pan American Health Organization says it does not recommend related products “in patients with suspected or diagnosis of Covid-19, or in any other case because there is no evidence on its efficacy and ingestion or inhalation of these products could cause serious adverse effects.”

Yet those promoting its use include Cochabamba’s Mayor José María Leyes, who has tested positive for the virus, and lawmakers from the main opposition party.

“I consider it necessary to try some other medicinal alternatives, such as chlorine dioxide,” Leyes said on July 10 on his official Twitter account. Despite the abundant warnings, he insists that chlorine dioxide is safe if taken with caution.

Bolivians line up outside a pharmacy in Cochabamba.

Bolivia’s Health Ministry has threatened to prosecute those who promote the unscientific use of chlorine dioxide as a coronavirus treatment “with the full power of the law.” But so far, it hasn’t taken legal action against specific individuals or entities.

Approving an unproven disinfectant

Promotion of chlorine dioxide has now gone beyond rhetoric in Bolivia: On July 14, Bolivia’s Senate — controlled by the opposition Movement for Socialism party — passed a bill to approve the “supply and use of the chlorine dioxide solution for the prevention and treatment of coronavirus.”

The proposed law would authorize public and private laboratories to produce the chlorine dioxide solution “for as long as there is a risk of contagion of the coronavirus,” and provincial and municipal governments should “guarantee the supply of the chlorine dioxide solution in the public health system,” the statement said. The law would also regulate the trade and production of the substance, as some people have been buying chlorine dioxide on the black market, the statement read.

The opposition, which holds a majority in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, is now pushing the bill for a vote in the Chamber. It is expected to pass there, too.

“It would be an alternative for treatment,” said Sergio Choque, leader of the Chamber of Deputies and member of the Movement for Socialism. “A treatment, but medically prescribed.” However, the proposed bill says prescriptions aren’t necessary, but dosages should be indicated on each bottle.

Ultimately, the bill has to be signed by the interim president to become law, and Áñez is likely to veto the law and stand by the guidance of the health ministry.

But with elections scheduled for this year, and coronavirus infections and deaths quickly rising across the country, the pressure on Áñez and her cabinet to find new solutions to end the crisis is mounting. Movement for Socialism, which is loyal to ousted former leader Evo Morales, has fiercely criticized the Áñez government’s handling of the pandemic.

The interim president’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed chlorine dioxide legislation.

She and over a dozen government officials have already tested positive for coronavirus, although Áñez has since been given medical clearance to return to work.

The Bolivian government issued an official decree on Monday, declaring the country was in a “state of public calamity” due to the economic impact of Covid-19.

Overwhelmed healthcare system

Bolivia, a nation with one of the lowest GDPs in Latin America, is also one of the hardest hit by the pandemic with more than 72,000 coronavirus cases and more than 2,700 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University (JHU).

Among the 20 countries most affected by Covid-19, Bolivia ranks seventh in per capita deaths, according to JHU.

Health workers bring a suspected coronavirus patient into a hospital in La Paz on July 23, 2020.

The country’s fragile healthcare system has been overwhelmed by a steep rise of infections in recent weeks. Several hospitals in the two largest cities, La Paz and El Alto, have reached capacity. Morgues and cemeteries have also been overwhelmed.

“Unfortunately our Covid hospitals in the city are full,” La Paz Mayor Luis Revilla said earlier in July, calling on additional hospitals to step in. Revilla announced on Tuesday that he and his wife tested positive for Covid-19 but are doing well and with almost no symptoms.

In Cochabamba, volunteers are helping to collect bodies of victims and assist those who can’t afford to bury their loved ones.

“We are all being affected. I have family members in intensive care. We’re trying to find a ventilator for my wife’s grandfather to save his life,” Luis Fernando Ortiz, member of the “Goodbye Brigades,” teams of volunteers who coordinate corpse collections with relatives and the police, and transportation to the nearest cemetery, told Reuters. “It is a catastrophic situation,” he said.

Eric Ocana, another Cochabamba resident, said treatments like the unproven chlorine dioxide, give him some hope and says he believes it has made at least two people he knows feel better.

“They are doing perfect,” Ocana told Reuters, adding they “have already gotten out of this problem.”

Medical workers carry a coffin containing a coronavirus victim in Cochabamba.

Elections postponed

Beyond the proposed chlorine dioxide law, the coronavirus has left its mark on Bolivian politics, forcing a date change for its long-overdue presidential election.

The President of Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Salvador Romero, announced last week that the election would be postponed so that proper coronavirus safety measures could be implemented. The vote will now take place on October 18, with a possible runoff on November 29.

It had previously been delayed from May.

Funeral workers carry a coffin during a funeral in La Paz.

Though Bolivia’s National Scientific Committee had encouraged the postponement, former leader Morales, who is currently in Argentina but has remained politically active, criticized the announcement and accused the interim government of trying to “gain more time.”

“The postponement of the election date will only cause more suffering to the Bolivian people because it prolongs the agony of the government in a sea of incapacities and ambitions that prevented them, in eight months, from taking measures to manage the current human and economic catastrophe,” Morales said in a series of tweets.

Morales, who stepped down after the 2019 general election over allegations of ballot fraud, maintains he was forced to resign and has vowed to continue fighting from abroad.

Bolivian interim President Jeanine Anez .
Áñez, a former senator, stepped into the role of interim president after the three people ahead of her in the line of succession quit in the wake of massive protests following Morales’ resignation.

In an election increasingly defined by the coronavirus crisis, Áñez is running against several candidates, including two former presidents, Jorge Quiroga and Carlos Mesa, and the candidate of the Movement for Socialism, Luis Arce, backed by Morales.

“We are making every effort and taking the necessary steps to be able to beat the pandemic as soon as possible,” Áñez tweeted on July 21. “If we work as a team, we will achieve it.”

CNNE’s Gloria Carrasco, Florencia Trucco and Abel Alvarado contributed to this report.