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Fake medicine

A counterfeit drug manufacturing lab in Colombia

As I was doing interviews for an article on fake pharmaceuticals, Paul Newton told me a story that I am unlikely to forget. Newton is a doctor in Laos who is involved in several projects to track down counterfeit malaria drugs in Southeast Asia and Africa; he’s also a doctor at a Wellcome Trust-funded hospital that is associated with tropical medicine at the University of Oxford.

We were talking about the fact that nobody knows exactly how many fake drugs are consumed around the world, but it’s pretty clear that the problem is greater in developing countries where there is less funding for regulation and/or policing. (The WHO estimates that markets in industrialized countries such as the U.S. and many parts of the E.U. have no more than about 1% counterfeits. In developing nations, some 10-50% of pills are guesstimated to be bogus.)

“Counterfeiters have killed with impunity,” Newton said. He went on to tell me that people sometimes spend what little money they have to unwittingly buy fakes, and then have succumbed to otherwise curable diseases because the medicines have not worked. “A Burmese patient died a few years ago of malaria having clearly taken fake artesunate,” a malaria drug, Newton said. “When he was admitted with malaria all the signs were that he should recover rapidly but then he deteriorated and died of cerebral malaria very tragically,” Newton added. The man’s community was so upset that people in “the village where the patient came from took all the medicine he had been taking from the shop. They burned it in a bonfire in the village in a spontaneous protest,” Newton told me.

It’s stories like these that have motivated the WHO to team up with INTERPOL to form an international anticounterfeiting task force called IMPACT (International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce). Drug counterfeiters pull in a–guesstimated again–$75 billion per year. According to many who follow pharmaceutical counterfeiting, hard drug traffickers are now turning to the business of making bogus medicines because the profit margin is better and the penalties are softer… than for say, cocaine or heroin. The IMPACT taskforce has just a couple of full-time staff members, which seems rather small for the challenge of coordinating the international fight against fake medicines. Yet IMPACT has brought down counterfeiting operations in Southeast Asia, Tanzania, Uganda and in Nigeria. Here’s a catch of bogus drugs, courtesy of IMPACT:

Fake meds in nabbed in Tanzania and Uganda

Here is an example of the storage conditions for fake medicines found in Kenya, also courtesy of IMPACT:

Storage of counterfeit drugs in Mombasa

And last but not least, here’s a shot of manufacturing facilities for a counterfeit ring tracked down in China. Photo courtesy of Pfizer’s David Shore:

Fake drugs, made in China

Even though it may seem like counterfeiting is on the rise, Newton pointed out to me that the business of making fake medicines is as old as remedies themselves. Around 1500 BC, an Egyptian queen called Hatshepsut got so fed up with the quality of herbal medicines she was exposed to, that she led an expedition herself to get good quality medicines in the land of Punt, near current day Somalia. More recently, in the 1600s, quinine-containing Cinchona bark imported to Europe from South America as treatment for malaria was adulterated “at such an enormous scale that the public gave up on the medicine because it seems not to work,” Newton adds.


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  • Jan 4th 201010:01
    by Nikki

    This and your article are must reads for anyone travelling or spending time in a third world country. Very, very chilling and very, very important information.

  • Jan 13th 201014:01
    by Matthew Kettlewell

    Looks like a cement mixer was being used…. for that matter, it looks like cement was being used.

    Thanks for the information, with only 1% of US exposed to this, it’s a real eye opener to what is happening around the world.

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