Asia is seeing an “epidemic of counterfeits” of life-saving drugs, with China as the source of most of the world’s fake drugs, experts say, and the problem is spreading. Malaria medicines have been particularly hard hit; in a recent sampling in Southeast Asia, 53% of the anti-malarials bought were fakes. Bogus antibiotics, tuberculosis drugs, HIV/AIDS drugs and even meningitis vaccines have been found.
Estimates of the deaths caused by fakes run from tens of thousands a year to 2,00,000 or more. The World Health Organization has estimated that a fifth of the one million annual deaths from malaria would be prevented if all medicines for it were genuine and taken properly.
“The impact on people’s lives behind these figures is devastating,” said Dr Howard Zucker, the organization’s chief of health technology and pharmaceuticals.
Internationally, a prime target of counterfeiters now is artemisinin, the newest miracle cure for malaria, said Dr Paul Newton of Oxford University’s Center for Tropical Medicine in Vientiane, Laos.
His team, which found that more than half the malaria drugs it bought in Southeast Asia were counterfeit, discovered 12 fakes being sold as artesunate pills made by Guilin Pharma of China. “They’re not being produced in somebody’s kitchen,” Newton said. “They’re being produced on an industrial scale.”
This month, the Chinese government announced it was investigating whether the former chief of China’s Food and Drug Administration had taken bribes to approve drugs. The director, Zheng Xiaoyu, was in office from the agency’s creation in 1998 until he was dismissed in 2005 after repeated scandals in which medicines and infant formula his agency had approved killed dozens of Chinese, including children.“The problem is simply so massive that no amount of enforcement is going to stop it,” said David Fernyhough, a counterfeiting expert at the Hong Kong offices of Hill & Associates, a risk-management company hired by Western companies to foil counterfeiters.
The distribution networks, he said, “mirror the old heroin networks,” flowing to Thai distributors with financing and money-laundering arranged in Hong Kong. The penalties are less severe than for heroin.Daniel Chow, an Ohio State University law professor and an expert on Chinese counterfeiting, said he believed that the authorities would pursue counterfeiters “ruthlessly” for killing Chinese citizens but be more lax about drugs for export.
“The counterfeiters aren’t stupid,” he said. “They don’t want anyone beating down the door in the middle of the night and dragging them away, so they make drugs for sale outside the country.”A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said that he had “no idea” whether most of the world’s counterfeits came from China, but that Zheng’s arrest proved China was cracking down. He also said counterfeiters would get the same punishment no matter whom they hurt.
Many of the fake artesunate pills found by Newton’s team were startlingly accurate in appearance—and much more devious in effect than investigators had suspected. Not only did the pills look correct, as did the cardboard boxes, the blister packing and the foil backing, but investigators also found 12 versions of the tiny hologram added to prevent forgery.
Some contained harmless chalk, starch or flour. But the latest, he said, contained drugs apparently chosen to fool patients into thinking the pills were working.In one case, even a secret “X-52” logo visible only under ultraviolet light was present, though in the wrong spot.But the most frightening aspect appeared when the pills were tested.
Some had acetaminophen, which can temporarily lower malarial fevers but does not kill parasites. Some had chloroquine, an old and now nearly useless anti-malarial. One had a sulfa drug that in allergic people could cause a fatal rash. And some had a little real artemisinin—not enough to cure, but enough to produce a false positive on the common Fast Red dye test for the genuine article.
Those would not merely fool a laboratory, Newton noted. They could also foster drug-resistant parasites, so if patients were lucky enough to get genuine artemisinin treatment later, they might have already developed an incurable strain and could die anyway.Such resistant strains could spread from person to person by mosquito and ultimately render the drug ineffective, as already happened with chloroquine and Fansidar, two earlier malaria cures.
The problem with anti-malarials is worst in Asia, but is growing rapidly in Africa. In September, the Nigerian authorities found $25,000 worth of counterfeit malaria and blood-pressure drugs concealed in a shipment of purses from China.