Thousands of Fake Pills Removed from UK Pharmacies

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Thirty thousand packs of counterfeit life-saving drugs may have been consumed by National Health Service (NHS) patients, including drugs used to treat prostate cancer, strokes, heart conditions and schizophrenia.

When: June 2007

Where: The United Kingdom

How: According to reports by the BBC, reputable UK wholesalers were “duped by sophisticated counterfeits.”

Who:  MHRA; National Health Service; Orient Pacific International; Pfizer

Additional details: In June 2007, the Medicines Health products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) issued four Class One emergency recalls on the following life saving medicines:

  • Casodex – used to treat prostate cancer
  • Plavix – used to treat strokes and heart conditions
  • Zyprexa – used to treat schizophrenia

A UK wholesaler spotted discrepancies in the packaging of drugs bought in Europe. A former investigator told the BBC that drugs from other parts of Europe can be purchased at lower prices, and that the UK can import the drugs from the EU under an arrangement known as a parallel trade—after which point the drugs are repackaged with English language packaging. The investigator said that the three drugs “would have pretended to be medicines that were destined for other European markets, in the case of Plavix, they would be in a French language pack.”

The counterfeit packaging wasn’t found until the imports were already in the supply chain, distributed to chemists, doctors and hospitals, and dispensed to patients, according to the BBC.

The head of enforcement at the MHRA said they had seized 40,000 of the estimated 70,000 packs of counterfeit drugs, but issued the recall because 30,000 packs were unaccounted for. The 30,000 missing packs are assumed to have been consumed by patients. It is unknown which patients consumed the counterfeit drugs, and thus it is unknown how many patients were made ill or died as a result of ingesting the counterfeits.

While there is no way to determine which patients received which drugs, the same batch numbers from the drugs were traced to the man at the center of an international fake drugs ring, Kevin Xu, a citizen of the People’s Republic of China and owner of Orient Pacific International.

In August 2007, Xu was indicted for distributing counterfeit and misbranded pharmaceuticals in the United States via the internet, at which time he also faced allegations for introducing counterfeit drugs into the UK supply chain. Xu
was convicted and sentenced
 to six and a half years in prison in January 2009.

In August 2006, The London Times reported that officials discovered 320 contaminated Lipitor packets marked with an authentic Lipitor batch number. Pfizer, the manufacturer, said that it was working with officials to help thwart counterfeiters.

In January 2007, The London Independent reported that the MHRA was investigating 25 cases of drug counterfeiting, twice as many as in 2002.

In October 2008, The London Telegraph reported that Dr. George Patino was jailed for three years in connection with a counterfeit drug operation which led to counterfeit Cialis, a drug to treat erectile dysfunction (ED), making its way into the NHS supply chain. According to a report released by Pfizer in November 2008, up 90 percent of all medicines sold on the internet were thought to be fakes. The company issued a warning to men using the web to purchase drugs to treat ED without a proper prescription.

In 2004, a spokesperson for the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA)
said that “Britain is a lucrative market for counterfeiters,” due in large part to the lack of effective drug sourcing.

Related sources:

Thousands ‘have taken fake drugs,’” BBC News. February 3, 2009.

How fake drugs got into the NHS,” BBC News. February 3, 2009.

Counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs distributor sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. January 14, 2009.

Rise in fake drugs puts NHS patients at risk,” London Independent. January 2, 2007.

Heart patients get fake drugs supplied to NHS pharmacies,” London Times. August 3, 2006.

NHS prime market for global drugs trade,” London Times. November 13, 2004.