Counterfeit Drugs Under The Microscope
November 14, 2012

Global Action Needed To Combat Counterfeit Drugs

Brett Smith for — Your Universe Online

After publishing a paper earlier this week in the British Medical Journal on stopping the counterfeit medicine trade, a group of scientists has been barred from an upcoming World Health Organization meeting.

An objection to their presence, which was raised by Indian officials, underlines the stark differences on how to handle the problem without hampering the legitimate trade of medicinal products. Reports on the incident speculate that the Asian country, which produces large volumes of cheap generic drugs, is concerned  Western governments and corporations are using the issue as a Trojan horse to restrict trade of the unpatented medicines.

The controversial article, which proposes a fake drugs treaty similar to those on money laundering and human trafficking, comes just one week before 100 nations hold the first meeting to discuss the very problem in Buenos Aires.

"We hope that [the article] will form the basis for getting some consensus on a definition of counterfeit drugs, which would then be transferable into a legal instrument," co-author Martin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Reuters.

The counterfeit drugs in question include ineffective medicines packaged as if they were legitimate and real drugs made in poor conditions, like the ones suspected of causing a recent meningitis outbreak in the United States.

While governments and drug companies are against the proliferation of unsafe medicines, building consensus on how to handle the problem can prove difficult and some stakeholders are concerned about the regulation of pharmaceutical pricing or intellectual property rights. Many countries do prohibit fake drugs under their national laws, but there is currently no international treaty designed to deal with the problem.

Fake drugs have become big business recently, becoming the top illicit product seized at borders across the European Union. Many of these fake drugs were found to be imitations of drugs made by companies such as Sanofi and AstraZeneca. The United States hasn´t been immune to this problem either, with fake vials of the cancer drug Avastin being found earlier this year.

The current lack of a treaty means there is no conformity on which medicines are illicit, and criminals are able to conduct business in countries where there are few laws or any enforcement. There is also no infrastructure in place for police and officials to cooperate across international borders.

In criticizing the lack of an international policy, many have raised the example of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control that cracks down on illicit trade of the product around the world, making the international tobacco trade more highly regulated than fake drugs.

"The protocol will now make it a requirement to track and trace tobacco products,” article co-author Amir Attan, Associate Professor of Law and Population Health at the University of Ottawa, told the BBC News. “Cigarette packets can carry serial numbers so it is possible to track them from beginning to end.”

"If this is something you can do for a $5 cigarette packet I do not see why we can't do it for a $3,000 packet of drugs that could save your life,” he added.