Shops line both sides of narrow alleys branching out from Al-Ahmar Mosque Street at the end of Ataba Square in the direction of Ramses Street, in central Cairo.
As soon as you take a step, your nostrils pick up an unpleasant smell emanating from containers of expired medicines that have been collected then emptied. These are to be reused and filled with alcohol that is supposed to be used for sterilization against the Coronavirus Covid-19 disease.
On one side of a small shop, plastic bags filled with old containers are lined up. A man in his fifties with gray hair stands in the front of the shop. Before him lies a bathtub coated with rust and filled with containers of naphthalene floating in dirty water. This is a deadly substance used for terminating insects applied to disinfect factory and hospital floors. In the middle of the small shop, there is also a huge barrel filled with empty containers swimming in the dark water that are to be reused. They are about to be dried with even dirtier rags and filled with alcohol.
The man in his fifties points to the bottles and says, “They are suitable for filling with alcohol after a thorough wash.The price of an empty bottle is 4 pounds.”
With the peak of the spread of the novel Coronavirus in its first wave, the World Health Organization announced the urgency of using ethyl alcohol as a means to sanitize hands and surfaces to prevent infection. Consequently, there had been a rush to purchase sterilizers in all shapes and sizes.
Like other Egyptians and as a mother of a young toddler, I was very anxious and started looking for a means of protection and prevention from infection. I followed instructions and collected a supply of detergents and chlorine. The most widely used item for sterilizing, alcohol, remained to be found.
I thought this would be a simple task. I went to the first pharmacy to get a bottle of 70% alcohol. The pharmacist replied sarcastically: “If you ever find it, get me some. The whole country is talking about alcohol.” This was on March 10 of last year.
I went out, confident that I would find my request at my pharmacist acquaintances. I started the torturous journey of searching for a bottle of alcohol with a concentration of at least 70%. This marked the start of this investigation, which will reveal a double scam. The first is that the sterilizing material itself, which is mixed with water to dilute the alcohol concentration, is below 70%, the required percentage to protect against Covid-19. The second scam taking place is that the hand-filled bottles are being processed without the minimal conditions of health and hygiene.
The narrow streets are crowded with workers busy transporting “washed” containers in white bags and distributing them to the shops and selling them to street traders who haggle over prices and sizes. There are 50 ml, 100 ml and 150 ml bottles with prices ranging from 5 to 10 pounds, that is less than one dollar.
These containers are re-used and filled with diluted alcohol, which is no longer just sold in pharmacies. It is also sold in supermarkets, detergent stores, perfumeries and on the sidewalks.
The investigating reporter examined dozens of stores down the same street and spotted two types of containers intended for manual filling. The first was old and used, and had been washed to be sold like the ones previously mentioned. The other was new, unused and imported from China. The price of this last type with a capacity of 100 ml reached 15 pounds, according to the traders of the Al-Ahmar Mosque Street and Clot Bey.
The scene is close to a public auction. The sellers of containers stand on high chairs while the traders around them jostle and race to get a mere 100 bottles, whereas they were able to buy 500 of them not too long ago. With the high demand in containers and a monopoly on the bottles, the price hikes began. Some decided not to sell more than a hundred containers at once, so that the goods would not run out quickly and to achieve greater profits if prices should rise.
Interestingly, the price and shape of the plastic container is identical to the licensed alcohol that is diluted to 70% and sold in pharmacies for 5 pounds with a spray nozzle. Where do these bottles come from? Possibly they are collected from waste. We urgently directed this question to the head of the Syndicate of Refuse Collectors, Shehata Muqadas. He categorically denied the issue and confirmed that “All plastic containers collected from the garbage are broken and then melted. Then, they enter washing lines and become beads. This is a material recycled in plastic recycling factories in Cairo at 3000 degrees Celsius.” The question remained pending, as we went back to research the materials that the bottles are filled with.
During the three hours we spent between Clot Bey Street and Al-Ahmar Mosque Street, we learned that the liquid that went into these bottles was sold on the parallel Al-Jaish Street.
The situation on Al-Jaish Street is the same as at Al-Ataba Square. Here, too, small shops are strewn about selling chemicals, and the price of a jerrycan reaches three thousand pounds. These are white or blue jerrycans that do not show any data or registered brand names, but the seller says that the alcohol concentration in them is 76%.
We found a one liter bottle from a relatively well-known company called Al-Alamiyah. The writing on it announced the alcohol concentration as 95%. The company sells it for 25 pounds, but its price here reached a thousand pounds.
We asked one of the merchants about the possibility of purchasing quantities of these filled bottles, and he took us to a room in a dilapidated house overlooking Bab Al-Sha’ariya’s main street. In a room without ventilation, we found two young men in their twenties mixing 250 liters of tap water and approximately 20 liters of alcohol in a barrel to fill three thousand containers. The price of one of these ranged between 15 and 20 pounds.
On the same street, a shop sells all kinds of counterfeit detergents and disinfectants of large national and international brands. The same containers that we spotted on Clot Bey Street are sold here as the original product of the Dettol company. It is difficult to tell them apart in terms of shape and packaging. A clear price tag of 40 pounds for a small container is inscribed on a label on the top of the shelf.
Medical analysis consultant and owner of a chemical company, Dr. Musa’ab Daoud said, “What is sold in the market and promoted on social media is just transparent bottles of 100 ml without any name of the manufacturing company or any information. The cap is not pressurized or tightly sealed as is the case of the well-known bottles of alcohol.”
He added, “Most of this alcohol is mixed with water. It can be tested simply by spraying it on the hands and noticing that it does not evaporate. Additionally, its smell is different from the well-known smell of alcohol, and it does not ignite easily, not to mention that the source of the container is unknown.”
The investigator purchased four random samples of alcohol and disinfectants offered on the market in order to have them analyzed by the Chemistry Authority. This is the government agency entrusted with analyzing samples of alcohol. We submitted the samples to the laboratory of the Chemistry Authority on April 22 of last year to check the contents.
We received the result of the analysis very the next day. The results revealed that the sample contained methanol alcohol, and we obtained an official report from the authority to this effect.
The head of the Chemistry Authority, chemical engineer, Majdi Fahmi, commented that the authority receives 500 alcohol samples daily from the regulatory authorities for inspection. He explained that 100 out of the 500 samples are adulterated, and the results of the analyses are sent to the regulatory authorities to take the necessary legal measures.
Head of the Chemistry Authority, Chemical Engineer Majdi Fahmi
Fahmi refused to clarify whether these adulterated samples belong to government or private companies, explaining that these are “the secrets of the regulatory authorities.” He pointed out that there are eight branches affiliated with the authority at the level of the Republic to inspect goods and find out if they are in compliance with specifications and quality.
There are government agencies that produce and distribute ethyl alcohol. The first is the Distillation and Chemicals Company, affiliated with the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Factory in El-Hawamdia, to the south of the Giza Governorate. Another one is in Abu Qurqas in the Minya Governorate in southern Egypt. This is a branch of the sugar factory in Upper Egypt. There are other companies whose roles are limited to distribution.
The daily production of the two distillation companies is 300 thousand pure liters, divided between the distilleries of El-Hawamdia and Abu Qurqas in Upper Egypt. All these products used to be sold in the 200 outlets of the sugar company. After the Coronavirus crisis, the company sent a proposal to the Egyptian Ministry of Health suggesting that they produce alcohol that is diluted to concentration of 72%. The company sent samples to the Ministry of Health to obtain approval for offering it on the market. According to the statements of the head of the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company, Muhammad Abdel-Rahim, no decision has yet been made on the submitted proposal.
The sugar factory in El-Hawamdia is a business sector company and is currently affiliated with the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade. It produces about 300 million liters of pure alcohol annually. This is exported to European and Arab countries. It is the only government factory in the Middle East to produce alcohol from sugarcane molasses.
During the investigation, several sources confirmed that
50% of the alcohol on the market is adulterated.
These contributors include the head of the Egyptian Sugar Company, chemical engineer Abdel-Rahim, Dr. Mahfouz, the official in charge of Al-Gomhoria and the Holding Companies, and the head of the drug manufacturing committee at the Pharmacists Syndicate, Dr. Mahfouz Ramzi. Dr. Ramzi is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Drug Chamber at the Federation of Chambers of Commerce. Dr. Ramzi was alerted to this scam “through pharmacists’ complaints as well as through consumer protection seizures.” Dr.Ramzi explained that he tried to buy alcohol more than once and he would test it by setting it alight. This is another way to reveal its effectiveness.
Dr. Mahfouz attributes what is happening to the fact that the Egyptian Sugar Company that produces ethyl alcohol has sold huge quantities to dealers who have adulterated it by adding water to it to gain massive profits. This is in addition to another type of deceitful practice, which is adding toxic methanol alcohol and selling it to the public. He explains that the Syndicate did not take any action “because it is not the regulatory body in charge of monitoring traders.”
Pharmacy Law No. (127) of 1955 and its amendments specify the amount of alcohol should be at a concentration of 95%. The amount of regular alcohol that may be stored inside a pharmacy was set at 50 liters of each type.
According to Article (63) of the law, alcohol and disinfectants are among the items that the Constitution allows pharmacies to produce and prepare with the necessary instructional labels affixed to containers and registered in the pharmaceutical preparation handbook. This gives the pharmacists the right to prepare it themselves on site in their pharmacy.
To investigate further, we went to the head of the division of medicines at the Federation of Chambers of Commerce, Ali Ouf. He said, “Currently, the average price of a liter of alcohol ranges between 60 to 65 pounds.” He pointed out, “the pharmacist has the right to buy alcohol from any distribution company such as Al-Gomhoria or El-Nasr companies or others.”
Ouf sees the pharmacy as the only official outlet for the sale of alcohol because the pharmacist is obligated to submit alcohol purchase bills that show the buyer and prices to the pharmacy inspection unit of the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population. Any fraud will subject the pharmacist to a fine of between 20 and 50 thousand pounds and a prison sentence of no less than a year.
Al-Kasr Al-Aini Street in the center of Cairo is one of the most important streets of the capital for offices and companies for medical supplies. In the medical supplies offices, we found some unknown types of alcohol, filled in a simple way, bearing a white plaster that is used to patch wounds, with a handwritten note in pen saying, “70% concentrated alcohol.”When one of the workers was asked about the source of the containers, he confirmed that they had been “packed in medical equipment supply companies because since the beginning of the crisis they have been able to obtain large quantities of alcohol.”
Ali Ahmad, the owner of a pharmacy on October Street explained, “Recently, most pharmacists have refrained from selling alcohol due to the shortage of supplies through reliable and approved companies such as El-Gomhoria and El-Nasr since the quantities were used up at the beginning of the crisis.”
He added, “We have become prone to fraud by dealers who have got hold of the remaining quantities on the market the price of a liter of which sometimes reaches a thousand pounds.”
He pointed out that currently the only legitimate source is the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company, “but,” he said, “there is a huge backlog, and alcohol is not available to the pharmacists of the provinces and regions. A pharmacist may have to wait 48 hours outside the supply company, as has been happening lately, in order to obtain only 40 liters. The price exceeds 2000 pounds after adding transport and delivery costs. So some have refrained from selling it and left the market to merchants and major stores.”
Ahmad explains, “Companies raised the price of the supply while the regulatory authorities intensified pharmacy inspections, although these are the only entities in the market that keep records and bills. They ignored the shops selling perfumes and detergents, which completely monopolized the sale, and now pharmacists stand accused of greed.”
Pharmacist, Hani Sameh is an activist in the pharmaceutical field. He believes that alcohol on the market is adulterated and that its concentration does not exceed 30%. This became clear when a large number of pharmacists complained after buying quantities of alcohol from some dealers.
On 14 March, the Pharmaceutical Inspection Unit in the Red Sea Governorate announced on its official website that 2,393 bottles of alcohol mixed with toxic thinner were seized in one of the major detergent stores, after the submission of a complaint by a citizen.
He says that the pharmacists’ complaints revealed that the alcohol was adulterated and that it was mixed with water at a higher ratio than prescribed by Egyptian specifications and standards. It might also contain toxic methanol, which dealers resort to for its cheap price since the price per liter does not exceed eight pounds.
Sameh also explains that ethyl alcohol is extracted from the fermentation of sugarcane and grapes, compared to toxic methanol alcohol which is extracted from wood. He explains that they can be distinguished by setting fire to a part of the alcohol, which is the most common experiment used. He elaborates that ethyl alcohol has a calm orange hue whereas methanol burns with a transparent flame.
Muhammad Abdel-Rahim, the head of the government affiliated sugar company said, “The volume of ethyl alcohol production amounts to 300 thousand liters per day. This is distributed to companies that manufacture medicines and cosmetics along with El-Shabrawishi Perfume Factory in addition to other companies that use alcohol for the purposes of making medicines.” He stressed that the priority for distribution is to trusted clients to avoid selling alcohol to dealers and to avert its adulteration
Abdel-Rahim pointed out that alcohol is manufactured from molasses, which is the purest type of alcohol with a percentage of no less than 95%. He observed, “The counterfeit substances common in the market are caused by the greed of merchants and their desire to make exorbitant profits.” Therefore, he “issued instructions not to sell alcohol except to pharmaceutical companies or companies that report their industrial records that show they are using them for specific purposes.”
Despite Abdel-Rahim’s assertion that the factory only produces ethyl alcohol, we learned that the El-Hawamdia Chemicals factory affiliated with the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company produces solvents that are used as disinfectants. This is according to a 2012 study by chemical engineer, Hassan Kamel Hassan, Chairman of the Board of Directors and Deputy of ASEC.
Abdel-Rahim says, “Any customer can buy solvents and then sell them to the public as pure ethyl alcohol. This is the responsibility of the regulatory authorities and the investigation authority of the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade. As manufacturers, we have no part in monitoring its adulteration or controlling it once it leaves the company.”
Major General Radhi Abdel-Mu’ti is the former head of the Consumer Protection Agency. He says that the agency cooperated with the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade to carry out “campaigns to control the market, especially after receiving information on alcohol scams. A factory in Qalyub in the Qalyubia Governorate and a factory in Beni Suef Governorate were caught in the act.” Moreover, “another factory for the production of detergents and disinfectants without a license was closed. It had gel bottles and large quantities of raw materials of the same disinfectants along with empty containers prepared for packaging.”
He adds that through the campaigns, launched by the agency, a store in the city of 10th of Ramadan was seized because it contained three tons of methanol alcohol to be sold as ethyl alcohol, according to the statements of the complainants in the investigation of the Consumer Protection Agency. Abdel-Mu’ti is calling upon citizens to “report any adulterated alcohol or disinfectants through the 19588 hotline.”
He pointed out that “there is round-the-clock coordination between the agency and the inspectors from the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade to control the market and issue violation reports from citizens’ complaints,” based on “citizens’ suspicion of the smell of alcohol or detecting the murky contents of the bottle.”
We obtained a copy of Decree No. (17) of 2020 issued by Prime Minister Dr. Mustafa Madbouli. It stipulates, “the amplification of the penalty for adulterating alcohol and disinfectants to imprisonment for a year and the payment of a fine of one million pounds instead of 10 thousand pounds, as had been in force until April 16 of last year.”
The decision set a mandatory price for alcohol at 55 pounds for pure alcohol and 35 pounds for 70% concentrated alcohol.
The decision was supposed to be implemented three days after it was announced and was published in the Official Gazette. After a week of issuing the Prime Minister’s decree, we called the head of the sugar company again to find out the extent to which the decision was implemented. However, he confirmed, “He has not officially received any decisions, and is committed to the old pricing until the change in the tax value is made.” This was the case up until publication date.