Health fears grow as counterfeit drugs flood into the UK
Counterfeiting gangs in China are producing sophisticated copies of the world’s bestselling pharmaceutical drugs. In 2008 an estimated 8 million of these potentially dangerous drugs found their way to NHS patients. The health of millions of people is at risk
They were manufactured in China, labelled in French and then shipped to Singapore. They were transported to Liverpool and from there were sold to the NHS. As the criminal investigation continues into how counterfeit Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic treatment prescribed for schizophrenia, infiltrated the NHS last year, evidence suggests that sophisticated counterfeiting syndicates are increasingly targeting the UK’s network of GP surgeries, high-street chemists and hospitals.
New figures reveal that British border officials seized more than half a million counterfeit pills intended for the NHS and high-street chemists last year, equal to the quantity of counterfeit drugs found in the whole of Europe in 2005. So large is the scale of the threat from counterfeit medicines that public confidence in the NHS could be “completely undermined”, according to legal experts. In addition health officials warn that the health of Britons is potentially at risk. In response, customs has upgraded tackling the trade in counterfeit medicines to “high priority”, the same urgency devoted to targeting heroin and cocaine dealers. Interpol revealed it was investigating reports that profits from counterfeit drugs are funding terrorist groups, including al-Qaida. Others warn that smuggling counterfeit drugs into Britain’s healthcare network could prove to be a terrorist weapon in itself.
Graham Satchwell, the former head of Scotland Yard’s organised crime group, who has spent years investigating the counterfeit drugs trade, believes significant numbers of Britons may already have died as a result of fake medicines. Although no deaths from counterfeit drugs have been recorded, Satchwell said the very nature of fake medicines meant patients may have died without counterfeit drugs being blamed. “They may have less of the active ingredient, meaning people could die because they are not receiving their life-saving treatment. Even now, though, healthcare professionals never assume it is the drug. No one asks whether deaths are attributable to fake medicines,” said Satchwell. However, forensic examinations of fake treatments have revealed toxic impurities such as anti-freeze and tiny amounts of the active ingredient, if there are any at all.
The size of the problem facing the NHS is now so great that Interpol’s secretary-general, Ronald Noble, opened an anti-counterfeiting conference in Africa recently by admitting to being “shocked” at discovering that fake drugs were more deadly than terrorism. Forty years of terrorism, he said, had killed 65,000 people, compared with 200,000 in one year alone in China from counterfeit medicines. Noble recently cited research that global counterfeit drugs sales will rise to more than $75bn by 2010, a 90% increase in five years. To read the full story Click Here (04 January 2009, The Observer)
China investigates alleged fake pills sold in Britain’s NHS
China’s drug watchdog promised to investigate how alleged counterfeit pills, made in China, were used by the British NHS.
Yan Jiangying, spokeswoman with State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) said “We will conduct relevant investigations and will surely punish companies or individuals who manufacture fake pharmaceuticals for export… If we find any clues of illegal medicine production for export, we will track them down”.
Yan restated China’s resolution to crack-down on both importing and exporting fake medicines. She emphasised that the government has adopted international principles and practices to regulate the counterfeit issue. Exported medicines should be accompanied with permission papers for sales in accordance with requirements of the World Health Organization. To read the full story Click Here (07 January 2009, Xinhuanet).
Pfizer use shock tactics in big screen advert about counterfeit drugs
Pfizer launches a hard-hitting cinema advertising campaign to warn consumers of the medical dangers of counterfeit medicines when illegally purchasing prescription medicines on the internet.
The advert, shown in 600 cinemas in the UK shows a middle-aged man spitting up a rat after swallowing a tablet delivered by post. The campaign, in partnership with the MSRA, reflects growing safety concerns – and commercial losses for the drug industry – caused by a rise in unregulated internet sales of medicines. The cinematic rat was inspired by the discovery of rat poison in a counterfeit version of a Pfizer blood pressure drug, Lipitor. Pfizer stated the rats used in the advert were supplied by trained specialists and not killed during the filming.
Pfizer has raised its public image as a crusader against counterfeit medicines, warning of health risks and calling for action against parallel traders. But the overall level of counterfeit medicines in the developed world is estimated at only about 1 per cent, with the majority sold via the internet opposed to normal supply chains. A recent Pfizer poll reported 10 per cent of men purchased prescription-only medicines using unregulated sources including the internet.
Pfizer is one of the hardest hit by internet sales of medicines, since it produces a fifth of the best-selling prescription medicines in the UK by sales, including the Viagra. To read the full story Click Here (15 January 2009, Financial Times).
Doctors warn about counterfeit medicines
Doctors are warning the public about a growing internet trade in fake medicines. They say that buying any prescription drugs online is ill-advised, unless you’ve had a proper consultation with a doctor.
It’s perfectly legal for UK pharmacists to trade over the internet. Reputable online pharmacies allow you to post a prescription from your doctor and then confirm the transaction online. You then receive your medicine through the post. There is no problem with this practice, as you still receive the usual care from your doctor.
The British Medical Association (BMA) points out that some internet companies sell prescription medicines without the proper medical advice, which can be dangerous. For example, many people will have received spam email offering Viagra for sale, for erection problems, which can be an early sign of a serious medical condition such as diabetes or heart disease. Men who see their doctor will be checked for these underlying problems.
Another big worry about medicines sold online is whether people really get what they’re paying for. The World Health Organisation says that, from online pharmacies that don’t give an address, 50 percent of the drugs sold are counterfeit. They may contain no medicine, or even be made from harmful chemicals. Fake drugs can be dangerous.
The problem doesn’t just affect drugs sold over the internet. Fake medicines often look very realistic, and in some cases have reached pharmacies, or been prescribed to patients. In the past three years, there have been 14 recalls in the UK of medicines that turned out to be counterfeit.
By law, all pharmacies in the UK have to register with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB). That includes internet pharmacies. You can make sure a pharmacy is registered using the RPSGB’s website (http://www.rpsgb.org.uk). The Royal Pharmaceutical Society is also introducing a logo, in the shape of a green cross, to appear on the websites of registered pharmacies, to help the public identify them. The scheme comes fully into operation next year. To read the full story Click Here (21 January 2009, The Guardian).