A Brazilian healthcare provider is accused of giving unproven drugs to Covid-19 patients and conducting experiments on elderly people without their relatives’ consent. The allegations have been linked to deaths that, families say, could have been prevented.
Katia Castilho is kept awake at night by her grief. Norberto, her father, was admitted to a public hospital in So Paulo in March with Covid-19. Brazil, which had been hard hit by the pandemic, was at the peak of its second wave, with 4,000 deaths per day.
Ms Castilho’s mother began to show symptoms of the disease a few days later. Unlike Norberto, Irene had access to a private healthcare provider, Prevent Senior, one of the country’s largest, with over 500,000 customers.
The Castilho family contacted the company and received a “Covid Kit” containing hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, and ivermectin, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence that these drugs are effective in treating the virus.
Ms Castilho and her two sisters decided to take their mother to a Prevent Senior-owned hospital as Irene’s condition worsened. Ms Castilho claims that they were surprised when Irene was sent home without being examined.
Her condition deteriorated further over night. Even with an oxygen cylinder, Irene was struggling to breathe by the morning. The family returned to the hospital, where she was eventually admitted.
Norberto died on the same day.
He was buried quickly and without rites, while the hearse waited for one of the Castilho sisters to say her goodbyes before returning to pick up more bodies.
Meanwhile, Irene was kept in a small ward at the hospital, where staff rarely came to check on her, according to Ms Castilho. The sisters took turns making sure the oxygen mask remained in place.
Ms Castilho noticed nurses giving Irene a thick solution one day. She claims she was told it was flutamide, a type of hormone used in the treatment of prostate cancer. Flutamide has the potential to cause liver failure in some patients, and Irene was a liver cancer survivor. The sisters claim they specifically instructed the hospital not to give her this medication.
“I was so upset by everything going on with my father, that I didn’t look for a doctor to discuss this,” Ms Castilho says. “Then I noticed that my mum was getting worse.”
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Irene had been in hospital for nearly 10 days when she was taken to intensive care. Her organs began to fail, she developed deep-vein thrombosis, and after three weeks, was infected with a bacteria common in hospitals. She did not survive.
The sisters had 20 minutes to be with their mum for the last time. Irene was cremated and her ashes were scattered over Norberto’s grave.
‘My mum trusted them’
Ms Castilho claims that as the intensity of the events subsided, “the penny began to drop” about her mother’s treatment. “I began to think about things. I couldn’t get to sleep. It felt like I was rewinding a tape, trying to figure out what went wrong.”
Ms Castilho believes the negligence began the day Irene was sent the “Covid Kit,” when many scientists were already expressing grave concerns about the drugs, and continued as doctors prescribed unproven medicine instead of more expensive intensive care treatment.
“My mother had complete faith in [Prevent Senior]. She was worried and would ask me to call them to see when her ‘Covid Kit’ would arrive “She stated. “She had no idea she was a guinea pig in their hands, and that she would soon die.”
More deaths are now being attributed to the company’s medical practises.
A Senate investigation into the government’s response to the pandemic heard allegations that the company was attempting to promote unproven treatments associated with President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly dismissed Covid-19.
Tadeu Frederico de Andrade, 65, a former patient, testified that he, too, was given the “Covid Kit” and treated with flutamide. His family claims that doctors wanted to transfer him to palliative care without their permission. “I’m a survivor of this heinous plot,” he explained.
Bruna Morato, a lawyer representing 12 whistleblowers, told the inquiry that if doctors disagreed with the unproven drugs, they were threatened and fired. The company is also accused of failing to mention Covid-19 deaths in patients’ records in order to conceal the extent of the problem.
In statements to the BBC, Prevent Senior stated that Irene and Tadeu “received every clinical and medical support” and that the company never adopted treatments that were contrary to medical ethics or aimed at cutting costs.
It called the Senate inquiry’s allegations against it “unfounded” and a “true public lynching.” The company has also stated that it has never fired employees due to technical convictions.
The company’s CEO, Pedro Batista, admitted to senators that Covid-19 was removed from patients’ records after two weeks because they were no longer infectious. He did not, however, deny testing unproven drugs on patients without their knowledge.
The company is being investigated by federal prosecutors, police, and state legislators in So Paulo.
The case, which has sparked national outrage, is embroiled in political wrangling, with the federal government being blamed for lax rules on Covid-19 treatment.
The inquiry also heard that the Bolsonaro administration had turned down Pfizer’s repeated offers to sell it 70 million doses of its vaccine. The final report of the investigation will be made public next Tuesday, and it may charge the president with serious misconduct in his response to the pandemic, which has killed over 600,000 people.
Ms Castilho says her family feels “devastated”.
“The day my dad died, he was supposed to be given the first dose of vaccine,” she says. “I lost my mum and my dad to a virus for which a vaccine already existed.
“Denying science kills, but when you think of all the money and interests involved… I can’t remain silent.”