The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on Tuesday ordered an inquiry into reports linking private hospital group Apollo Hospitals, to a cash-for-kidneys racket, reported The Indian Express.

The action follows a December 3 report by the London-based newspaper The Telegraph, which claimed that Apollo Hospitals flew in young villagers from Myanmar and paid them to donate their kidneys to rich Burmese patients.

It said that the scam was first brought to light when the newspaper learned of a case where the operation was done at the Indraprastha hospital, Apollo’s flagship facility in New Delhi.

The Indraprastha Medical Corporation Limited is a joint venture between Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Limited and the Delhi government. The corporation has denied the allegations, calling them “absolutely false, ill-informed and misleading”.

On Tuesday, the National Organ and Tissue Transplant Organisation, which is part of the Union Health Ministry, asked Delhi Health Secretary Dr SB Deepak Kumar to examine the matter and take appropriate action as per the provisions of the law. The organisation’s Director Dr Anil Kumar also asked Deepak Kumar to furnish an action taken report within a week.

A committee will be set up to investigate the matter, said Dr SB Deepak Kumar, reported The Indian Express. The Delhi health secretary also said he has sought details of donors and patients from the hospital.

Under India’s Transplantation of Human Organs Act, a patient can receive an organ from their close relatives, like spouses, parents, siblings or grandchildren. Close friends and distant relatives can also donate their organs if it is proven that their motivation is not financial gain.

The law does not permit donations between strangers unless it can be proven it is for altruistic purposes. If organ transplantation involves foreign nationals, they have to furnish a form from their relevant embassies to establish the relationship between the donor and the patient. Other documents include a family tree, marriage certificates and photographs.

These documents are then reviewed by a transplant authorisation committee appointed by the government. The committee also interviews the recipient and the donor to confirm their relationship. This committee comprises a central government officer, a state government officer, two retired Indian Administrative Service officers and two hospital consultants.

‘The Telegraph’ report

The British newspaper said that it first learnt about the cash for kidneys racket through the case of Daw Soe Soe, a 58-year-old patient who paid 8 million Myanmar kyat (Rs 3,16,681) for a new kidney in September 2022.

Her operation was conducted at the Indraprastha hospital and her donor was a stranger, she told the newspaper.

“I am aware that both Myanmar and India laws do not allow strangers to donate organs,” she said. “But since we are in Myanmar, the agent teaches us to tell the fake story that we are relatives.”

Following this, a reporter from The Telegraph went undercover to pose as a relative of a sick aunt to investigate the cash-for-kidneys racket. After contacting the Apollo’s Myanmar offices, the reporter was told that a stranger would be sourced to donate their kidney.

The reporter was also informed by another individual associated with Apollo, Phyoe Khant Hein, that 80% of transplants facilitated in Myanmar are between strangers.

Dr Thet Oo, the head of Apollo’s Myanmar operation, told the undercover reporter that agents help get patients in touch with strangers who can donate their kidneys for money. Dr Thet also agreed that the agents forge documents to establish familial relationships between the donor and the patient that are accepted by authorities in India, according to The Telegraph.

The doctor shared a document that detailed the range of expenses linked to the transplantation, including drawing up of a family tree (Rs 33,064), return flights (Rs 41,990) and registration for the medical board (Rs 16,796).

The document also shows that kidney transplants alone cost Rs 1,794,431. A patient can choose their donor and then arrange a payment to them, Dr Thet told The Telegraph. He said that in most cases donors are paid Rs 2,83,352 to Rs 3,26,380.

After the agreement is made between the donor and the patient, they are flown to Delhi where a medical board reviews their document before the operation. According to an agent in Myanmar, the medical board is “just a facade”.

“The Apollo hospital knew about it,” Daw Soe Soe told The Telegraph. “They just pretend not to know.”

Apollo Hospitals’ response

The Apollo Hospitals and the Indraprastha Medical Corporation Limited have denied the allegations.

“The government-appointed transplant authorisation committee at the Indraprastha Medical Corporation Limited reviews documents for each case including this certification and interviews the donor and the recipient,” a spokesperson of the Indraprastha Medical Corporation Limited said. “It further re-validates the documents with the concerned embassy of the country.”

The hospital said that patients and donors undergo several medical tests, including genetic testing to ensure that they are related. Besides this, many more steps are taken, exceeding any compliance requirements, for a transplant procedure to make sure that the law is not violated, it said.

Following the report by The Telegraph, the Apollo Hospitals removed Dr Thet from its Myanmar centre, reported The Indian Express. However, the hospital did not provide any reason for the action.