An estimated 1-in-10 medical products circulating in low and middle-income countries is either substandard or fake.1  I’m part of a global team that is trying to protect people from these counterfeit medicines whilst also protecting our brand and products right along the supply chain. That involves everything from investigating criminal incidents, to logistics and sustainability.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that fake or counterfeit medicines can have. For example, it’s estimated that 700,000 people die every year because of fake tuberculosis and malaria medicines.2 It’s a shocking statistic but it drives home the fact that counterfeit medicine is not a victimless crime. People with diseases such as malaria are dependent on life-saving medicines – if they don’t get the right medicines, or they use a medicine which is sub-standard, has the wrong ingredient or the wrong dose, then it can potentially be fatal.

Criminal groups making and selling counterfeit drugs will often target poorer countries or disaster relief operations. They know that people in countries hit by earthquakes or other disasters are desperate and medicine is in short supply. But the drugs they provide are often made in illegal underground labs. They may be contaminated, might not contain any active ingredient or even contain a harmful one. They can make a bad situation worse.

I’ve been sponsoring three kids in Ethiopia for the past 10 years.  I got involved through a charity project to build a school in Ethiopia which was near a small hospital without electricity or water. I was shocked that women had to give birth there without clean water. Criminal organisations peddling counterfeit drugs often prey on hospitals like these that lack even basic medicine and supplies. It’s very important to me personally that my job helps tackle exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet.

My job has changed a lot. When I first started, most of my work focused on dealing with issues in individual countries. Now, most of my time is spent dealing with cross-border online activity. While many online pharmaices are legitimate and adhere to regulations, more and more counterfeit websites are springing up all the time. During a random sampling of 10,000 online pharmacies, the FDA found 97% of them to be unauthorised.3 It’s become a much more complex task and we’re increasingly investigating online trading and multinational incidents with high risks both for patients and for us as a company.

It can be hard for patients to tell if the online pharmacy they are using is legitimate or not. These websites can be so sophisticated that it’s sometimes hard for even IT specialists to see through them. On the other hand, some patients are aware that when they buy something very cheaply online it might be dodgy so they’ll ask us if the product is safe. But they’re often reluctant to disclose the websites they bought medicines from because it might be an illegal purchase in their country.

I’ve seen ‘shopping malls’ where virtually all the drugs being sold were counterfeit.  I was on a field trip in one country and saw stalls two to three metres wide packed with counterfeit drugs. The ones we saw on that day didn’t pose a serious health risk as they weren’t selling life-saving medicine, just medication for a runny nose which either had the same active ingredient as the legitimate product or none at all. However, counterfeit drugs can carry serious health risks and they can contribute to the rise of drug-resistant diseases.

Europol launched Operation Viribus earlier this year, the largest counterfeit drug action of its kind. It was a huge effort involving 33 countries, hundreds of arrests and the closure of nine underground labs. The action dismantled 17 organized groups and seized 3.8 million illicit doping substances and counterfeit medicines.4 We shared intelligence with several police forces through the Pharmaceutical Security Institute (PSI) and with the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Serialization of medicines is an important new approach to combatting counterfeit operations. The European Union introduced new legislation,5 the Falsified Medicines Directive, which took effect in February 2019 and requires unique identifiers for medical products. Many other countries and regions are also increasingly introducing their own regulations and legislation. We’re putting a lot of effort into this area, we have a specialist team helping us verify legitimate products and supply chains. There’s no doubt that counterfeit drugs can be hard to spot, because the product and packaging can be virtually identical to the legitimate product, but it’s now getting harder for these criminal groups to get away with it.

Sometimes it’s good to escape when you have a busy job. That’s one reason I scuba dive.You’re completely disconnected from normal life and submerged in unbelievable beauty.

Find out more about the dangers of counterfeit medicinal products here

 

References:

1. 1 in 10 medical products in developing countries is substandard or falsified - World Health Organization. Last accessed: November 2019

2. Counterfeit drugs raise Africa's temperature - United Nations. Last accessed: November 2019

3. Illegal online pharmacies: how endemic are they? - Pharmacy Technology. Last accessed: November 2019

4. Keeping sport safe and fair: 3.8 million doping substances and fake medicines seized worldwide - Europol. Last accessed: November 2019

5. Falsified medicines - European Commission. Last accessed: November 2019

 

Date of Preparation: November 2019

UK/CPE/18/0019(1)f