Counterfeit Drugs a Problem for the World’s Rich as Well as the Poor

Governments are stiffening regulations against fake drugs and conducting more aggressive raids, as anti-counterfeiting technologies improve and NGOs support anti-counterfeiting campaigns.

Counterfeit medicine smugglers have not been as aggressively pursued by international law enforcement as heroin or cocaine smugglers , however governments are stiffening regulations against fake drugs and conducting more aggressive raids. Companies are improving technologies to best the criminals. Even the Vatican issued a statement in August that it is in “the best interest of all concerned that smuggling of counterfeit drugs be fought against”, reports The Economist.

These are justifiable actions because counterfeit drugs can kill. Many contain the wrong dose of the active ingredient, and taking them instead of the real medicine can turn a treatable disease into a fatal one. It can also foster drug resistance among germs. According to The Economist, studies of anti-infective treatments in Africa and South-East Asia have found that 15-30% are fakes. The UN estimates that roughly half of the anti-malarial drugs sold in Africa are counterfeits.

Now the market for fakes is expanding in the developed world. John Clark, Pfizer’s global head of security says that fake versions of at least 20 of its products have been detected in the legitimate supply chains of at least 44 countries.

Counterfeiters used to operate chiefly in developing countries, says Mr Clark, but now his firm sees fakes coming from such rich and well-regulated places as Canada and Britain. And the crooks are growing more technologically sophisticated: some can even counterfeit the holograms on packets that are meant to reassure customers that pills are genuine. A consumer study funded by Pfizer recently found that nearly a fifth of Europeans polled in 14 countries had obtained medicines through illicit channels.

In response, technology firms are developing methods for tracing legal products and verifying their origins. In July Oracle, an American software giant, unveiled Pedigree, a program that helps drugs firms “track and trace” pills all the way from the factory to your fingers. IBM has a rival offering, as well as one using radio-frequency identification (RfID) chips, which are embedded in packaging to detect tampering and allow precise tracking. 3M, a materials company, and Abbott Laboratories, an American medical firm, are also rolling out an RfID-based product. A division of Johnson & Johnson, a drugs giant, has developed web-based software to help customs officials quickly verify whether drugs are fake or real. And a Ghanaian start-up firm, mPedigree, has come up with a clever way to use mobile phones in this fight. Participating drugs companies emboss a special code onto packages, which customers find by scratching off a coating. By sending a free text with that code, they can find out instantly if the package is genuine or a fake.

While Thomas Kubic of the Pharmaceutical Security Institute says this war will be hard to win, he thinks innovations such as mobile-based validation may “harden the target”, just as a burglar alarm makes your home somewhat trickier to rob.