‘Fake Drugs Kill More People Each Year Than Terrorism In The Last 40 years’

In this article, I shall deliberate on ‘fake medicines’ that we may at times land up into buying, without any inkling that instead of curing or managing the ailments, these products can push us into serious health hazards, quite contrary to what we and our doctors hope for.

One may term these substances as ‘Counterfeit’, ‘Fake’, ‘Spurious’ or ‘Sub-standard’ drugs, or in whatever other names one may wish to. The bottom-line is that such products in the guise of drugs could precipitate very serious and life-threatening health crisis for patients. This mindless game has already become both a global and local health menace, though in varying degrees and parameters in different countries.

According to INTERPOL, large sums of money are involved with these transnational criminal enterprises. Fake drug makers, who run this deadly trade undercover, use sophisticated tools and technologies and are well equipped to operate stealthily.

Deploying requisite wherewithal, this growing threat to public health and safety needs to be addressed expeditiously by all concerned and in tandem. Curbing this menace would call for great concerted focus in approach and execution of a fool-proof strategy with military precision.

At this stage, I reckon, we should not clutter the subject by mixing it up with other commercial considerations, such as Intellectual Property (IP) related matter, for which appropriate laws and mechanisms are already in place.

CBI underscores veracity of the problem:

Under the above backdrop, a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Press Release dated June 24, 2015 announced that the First Indo-French Workshop on “Combating Counterfeit Medicine” for Police Officers, Investigators and other officers was held on 23 and 24 June 2015 in New Delhi.

The event was organized in collaboration with the French Embassy; Institute of Research Against Counterfeit Medicines, France; Central Office Against Environmental & Public Health Violations, France and Central Fight Against Harm to the Environment And Public Health (OCLAESP) and was hosted by the CBI. Mr. Anil Sinha, Director, CBI inaugurated the workshop.

‘Fake Drugs Kill More People Each Year than Terrorism’:

In his inaugural address, Mr. Sinha made a startling revelation, when he said, according to an estimate of INTERPOL; fake medicines kill more people in a year than those who have died in the past 40 years as a result of terrorism.

Just a few years ago, INTERPOL reportedly estimated that while more than 65,000 people were killed in over 40 years in transnational terrorist incidents, the estimates of deaths caused by fake medicines range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands annually.

Quoting Ronald Noble, the erstwhile Secretary General of INTERPOL another report says, “40 years of terrorism has killed about 65,000 people, while 200,000 people died from the use of counterfeit drugs last year alone, and that’s just in China.”

Both crime and big money are involved in this life-threatening menace. Citing an example the CBI Director said, ‘One illicit online pharmacy network, which was dismantled by US authorities in 2011, managed to earn USD 55 million during two years of operations’.

In India, we have already read about the raids conducted by Mumbai FDA in April 2015 on similar unauthorized online pharmacies in the country. Following this development, the Drug Controller General of India has announced his yet another good intent to look into this issue with the help of a trade organization.

I shall also discuss, very briefly though, about problems associated with online pharmacies related to fake drugs, the world over.

More problems in the developing nations:

The CBI Director also articulated in his address, “Though the ramification of this menace is worldwide, it is more pronounced in developing and under developed nations.”

Sometime back in 2006, a study published by the then International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force (IMPACT) indicated that in countries like, the USA, EU, Japan, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the problem is less than 1 percent. On the other hand, in the developing nations like parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa more than 30 percent of the medicines are counterfeits.

The above ‘Task Force’ also reported as follows:

“Indian pharmaceutical companies have suggested that in India’s major cities, one in five strips of medicines sold is a fake. They claim a loss in revenue of between 4 percent and 5 percent annually. The industry also estimates that spurious drugs have grown from 10 percent to 20 percent of the total market.”

‘Fake Drugs’ are more in countries with weak regulatory enforcement:

It has been observed that the issue of fake drugs is more common in those countries, where the regulatory enforcement mechanism is weak. India, I reckon, is one such country.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Health in India does not even recognize that fake Drugs are a growing menace in the country. This is vindicated by its latest report of 2009 on this subject.

The above report titled, “Report on Countrywide Survey for Spurious Drugs”, published by CDSCO on behalf of Directorate General of Health Services, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India in 2009, concluded as follows:

“In view of above observations and data obtained from the manufacturers, after physical verification of all the drug samples and subsequent chemical analysis report on the representative of samples taken at random, it may be concluded that:

(i)             The extent of spurious drug in retail pharmacy is much below the projections made by various media, WHO, SEARO, and other studies i.e. only 0.046 % (11 samples out of 24,136 samples).

(ii)           Extents of substandard drugs among the branded items are only 0.1 % {Out of two thousand nine hundred seventy six (2976) unsuspected samples, 03 samples do not conform to claim with respect to Assay on chemical analysis}”

It is an irony that the drug regulators in India mostly keep demonstrating an ‘Ostrich Syndrome’ – refusing to acknowledge this menace that is blatantly obvious. They apparently believe that no health hazards due to prevalence of fake drugs exist in the country.

On the other side – many worrying reports:

Though the Government of India tends to wash its hands off on the very existence of this menace with the survey reports as above, following are just a few examples from other reports raising concerns on this critical issue in India:

  • A July 2014 ASSOCHAM report titled, “Fake and Counterfeit Drugs In India –Booming Biz” states that fake drugs constitute US$ 4.25 billion of the total US$ 14-17 billion of domestic pharmaceutical market. If the fake drugs market grows at the current rate of 25 percent, it will cross US$ 10 billion mark by 2017.
  • A May 2012 study published in ‘The Lancet’ reported that over one in three anti-malarial drugs sold in southeast Asia are fake while a third of samples in sub-Saharan Africa failed chemical testing for containing too much or too little of the active ingredient, potentially encouraging drug resistance. Around 7 percent of the drugs tested in India was found to be of poor quality with many being fake. India reportedly records 1.5 million cases of malaria every year.
  • A February 2012 report of ‘The National Initiative against Piracy and Counterfeiting’ of FICCI highlighted that the share of fake/counterfeit medicines is estimated at 15- 20 percent of the total Indian pharmaceutical market.
  • A 2011/12 report of the US Customs and Border Protection highlighted: “India and Pakistan both made it to top 10 source countries this year due to seizures of counterfeit pharmaceuticals. Pharma seizures accounted for 86 percent of the value of IPR seizures from India and 85 percent of the value of IPR seizures from Pakistan.”

DCGI intends to justify his moot point yet again:

In view of all these worrying reports and amid concerns around the quality of medicines being manufactured in India, in January 2015, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) proposed carrying out a nation-wide survey using methodology prepared by the Indian Statistical Institute, Hyderabad to assess the prevalence of fake and substandard drugs.

In the 2015 survey, around 42,000 locally made drug samples would be drawn from across the country throughout the rest of this year, which would include 15 therapeutic categories of drugs featuring in the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM), 2011.

As I mentioned before, according to the DCGI this survey would “tell the world that our drugs are of quality”.

I discussed a similar issue titled, ‘Are We Taking Safe And Effective Medicines‘ in this Blog on November 13, 2013.

‘Fake Drugs’ and Online drug sales:

Before I touch upon this point and at the very outset, let me submit that in this article I shall not discuss on the merits or demerits of online pharmacies and the need of such e-outlets in India.

That said, it is now widely believed, backed by hard data that the Internet is increasingly assuming an attractive niche in the global diffusion of ‘fake drugs’.

Unlike India, some countries already support the business of legal online pharmacies by charting a transparent regulatory mechanism in place. For example in the United States all Internet pharmacies have to be licensed in the country. All their States require this. The general rule is, if an Internet pharmacy is offering to ship drugs into a particular state, they have to be licensed (but not necessarily located) there.

However, if an Internet pharmacy is shipping prescription drugs to individuals in the US from outside the US, that is absolutely illegal.

Some institutions in the US developed an accreditation system for Internet pharmacies. The official seals of these institutions, require to be posted on pharmacies’ website as a warrantee.

It is important to note that these institutions operate only at the national level and due to differences in domestic laws in different countries, it is difficult for any of them to provide customers with reliable information concerning the quality of pharmaceuticals, in general, available online.

Status of online pharmacies in India:

Although online sales of pharmaceuticals are totally illegal in India till date, there seems to be several such pharmacies still operating in the country.

It is generally believed that the impact of the Internet on ‘fake drugs’ business models is real. Thus, enforcement strategies need to be very stringent.

It is precisely for this reason, on April 17, 2015, Maharashtra’s Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) reportedly raided the premises of e-commerce major Snapdeal.com for allegedly selling medicines, including prescription drugs.

Immediately thereafter, the company announced that it has delisted the drugs on its portal and is assisting the FDA in the investigation.

Taking note of the prevailing scenario of illegal online sales of prescription drugs through e-commerce sites in India, DCGI office has reportedly started studying the existing regulations internationally to come out with a set of rules for online pharmacies. Meanwhile, DCGI has reportedly appointed the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) as the nodal agency for consolidating the guidelines.

Be that as it may, experts believe that online sale of drugs should be permitted in India only with strict and well thought out norms, which are enforceable hundred percent, anywhere within the country. Stringent guidance should be formulated in the amendment bill, 2015 of Drugs & Cosmetics Act & Rules, accordingly.

Conclusion:

Keeping this emerging scary scenario in perspective on the menace of fake drugs, the message of the CBI Director in this regard must be noted by the Government with all seriousness…continuing ‘all is well’ signals from the DCGI, not withstanding.

All stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry must be made aware, on a continuous basis, of the health hazards posed by fake medicines in India.

As the penetration of Internet keeps increasing at a galloping speed in the country, unregulated online sales of ‘fake drugs’ in the guise of ‘licensed medicines’, pose a very real threat to public health and safety. If and when online sales of medicines are legalized, enforcement of all rules and laws in this regards need to be very stringent with exemplary punitive actions prescribed, for even slightest violations.

In tandem, the DCGI and other regulatory and enforcement agencies in the states, healthcare professionals, patients, all pharmaceutical manufacturers, drug distributors, wholesalers and retailers should join hands to play a proactive role in curbing the menace of ‘fake medicines’ that victimize the innocent patients.

No Wolf in sheep’s clothing must be allowed coming anywhere in the near vicinity…at all.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

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