The issue of ‘Counterfeit Drugs’ in India: An “Ostrich Syndrome’

Ellen‘t Hoen, former Policy Advocacy Director of MSF’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines wrote in April 2009 as follows:

“People often seem to confuse counterfeit, substandard and generic medicines – using the terms interchangeably. But they are very separate issues and clearly defining their differences is critical to any discussion”.

In November 7, 2009, Financial Express reported with a headline, “Generic drug companies see a bitter pill in counterfeit, because some believe that it has an in-built intellectual property right connotation.
The WHO debate:

‘Intellectual property Watch’ in May 20, 2010 reported as follows:

“Brazil and India claimed that WHO’s work against counterfeit and substandard medicines is being influenced by brand-name drug producers with an interest in undermining legitimate generic competition. The Brazilian ambassador told Intellectual Property Watch there is a “hidden agenda” against generics from countries like Brazil.

“India and Brazil filed requests for consultations with the European Union and the Netherlands over the seizure of generics medicines in transit through Europe. This is the first step towards a dispute settlement case, and if issues cannot be resolved via consultations then formation of a dispute settlement panel could be requested in the coming months”.

In response to such allegations the International Federation on Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) released a document titled, “ten principles on counterfeit medicines” and categorically stated that “patents have nothing to do with counterfeiting and counterfeiting has nothing to do with patents.”

In this seemingly volatile scenario, the key point to understand is the definition of a ‘Counterfeit Drug’.

The dictionary definition:
The word ‘Counterfeit’ may be defined as follows:
1. To make a copy of, usually with the intent to defraud
2. To carry on a deception or dissemble
4. To make fraudulent copies of something valuable
5. A fraudulent imitation.
What does the Indian Drugs and Cosmetics Act say?
Presumably in the spirit of the above definition, the Drugs and cosmetics Act (D&CA) of India has specified that manufacturing or selling of the following types of drugs are punishable offence:
Section 17: Misbranded drugs
Section 17-A: Adulterated drugs
Section 17-B: Spurious drugs
The question therefore arises, as misbranding could involve trademark and design, why does it fall under D&CA?
This was done in the past by the law makers, as they believed that any attempt to deliberately and fraudulently pass off any drug as something, which it really is not, could create a serious public health issue, leading to even loss of lives.
Be that as it may, the pharmaceutical industry all over the world sincerely believes that counterfeit drugs involve heinous crime against humanity.

Another argument:

Some voices in India have also expressed that ‘Counterfeit Drugs’ are a Health issue. Why are we then mixing up non-health IPR issues like trademarks and designs along with it?

Should the definition of ‘Counterfeit Drugs’ cover all types of medicines, which are not genuine?

Definition of counterfeit drugs should, therefore, cover the entire gamut of medicines, which are not genuine. Such medicines could be a fraudulent version of patented, generic or even traditional medicines and have nothing to do with patents or patent infringements.
At the same time it sounds very reasonable that a medicine that is authorized for marketing by the regulatory authority of one country but not by another country should not be regarded as counterfeit on this particular ground in any country, unless it has been made available fraudulently. It will be absolutely improper for anyone to term generic drugs as counterfeits, in the same way.

The magnitude of the problem:

International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force (IMPACT) reported in 2006 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% and 5% annually. The industry also estimates that spurious drugs have grown from 10% to 20% of the total market.”

CDSCO surveys on ‘Spurious’ and ‘Sub-standard’ drugs in India:

Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) of the Government of India has released the following details on ‘Counterfeit Drugs’ in India from 2006 to 2010.

Year Drugs samples tested % of sub-standard drugs % of spurious drugs Prosecution for crime Persons arrested
2006 – 07






2007 – 08






2008 – 09






2009 -10












It is indeed very surprising to note from the above CDSCO report that from 2006 to 2010 the number of both arrests and prosecutions for this heinous crime in India is abysmally low.

To assess the magnitude of the menace of counterfeit drugs, Financial Express dated November 12, 2009 reported that much hyped “world’s largest study on counterfeit drugs” conducted by the Ministry of Health of the Government of India with the help of the Drug Controller General of India’s office, has come to the following two key conclusions:
1. Only 0.046% of the drugs in the Indian market were spurious
2. Only 0.1% of drugs are of sub-standard quality in India

Is there really nothing to worry about?

From these reports, it appears that India, at this stage, has nothing to worry about this public health hazard!

It is indeed equally baffling to understand, why did the government keep ‘misbranded drugs’, as specified in the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of India, outside the purview of this study.
In my opinion, the above recent survey has raised more questions than what it had attempted to answer. Such questions are expected to be raised not only by the pharmaceutical industry of India, its stakeholders and the civil society at large, but by the international community, also.
The problem of ‘Counterfeit Drugs’ is more prevalent in countries where regulatory enforcement is weak:
The menace of counterfeit medicines is not restricted to the developing countries like, India. It is seen in the developed countries, as well, but at a much smaller scale. Thus it is generally believed that the issue of counterfeit drugs is more common in those countries, where the regulatory enforcement mechanism is weak.
A study done by IMPACT in 2006 indicates that in countries like, the USA, EU, Japan, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the problem is less than 1%. On the other hand, in the developing nations like parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa more than 30% of the medicines are counterfeits.
The role of ‘The World health Organization (WHO)’:
To effectively eliminate this global menace, the leadership role of the WHO is extremely important. Across the world, patients need protection from the growing menace of ‘Counterfeit Medicines’. As a premier organization to address the needs of the global public health issues and especially for the developing world, the WHO needs to play a key and much more proactive role in this matter.

All stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry must be made aware, on a continuous basis, of the health hazards posed by counterfeit medicines in India. Authorities and organizations like the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) and its regulatory and enforcement agencies, healthcare professionals, patients, all pharmaceutical manufacturers, drug distributors, wholesalers and retailers should collaborate to play a very active and meaningful role in curbing the counterfeit drugs from reaching the innocent patients.

Instead of all these, as we witness today, the country keeps on demonstrating an ‘Ostrich Syndrome’, shouting from the roof top, as it were, that no health hazards due to prevalence of ‘Counterfeit Drugs’ exist in India.

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