18 November 2008

Contributing to resistance: fake drugs?

There's news this morning that Interpol has seized $6.65 million of counterfeit medicines in the culmination of a 5-month undercover investigation that stretched across Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The fakes included purported antiretrovirals for HIV, anti-TB drugs, antimalarials (especially artemisinin) — and, chillingly for our purposes here, fake antibiotics for pneumonia and other bacterial illnesses.

Bloomberg News says:
Under Operation Storm, which ran from April 15 to Sept. 15, police seized more than 16 million pills...
Asia is the world's biggest producer of all counterfeit products, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in a report last year. About 40 percent of 1,047 arrests related to fake drugs worldwide last year were made in Asia, according to the Washington-based Pharmaceutical Security Institute.
Counterfeits account for as much as 30 percent of all drugs in developing nations and less than 1 percent of all medicines in developed nations such as the U.S. (Byline Simeon Bennett.)
Counterfeiting medicines is both a huge business — the World Health Organization estimates that "counterfeit drug sales will reach US$ 75 billion globally in 2010, an increase of more than 90% from 2005" — and an appalling crime that attacks the most vulnerable people at their most vulnerable moments. In a recent issue brief, the WHO recounts a number of instances of counterfeiting that led to deaths in a number of countries.

Why should we care here? Because some counterfeits are not complete fakes; they contain a small amount of the active ingredient of the drug they purport to be. That means that, if someone takes a faked version of an antibiotic, they may not be going untreated. Instead, they may be undertreated, the exact situation that can lead to the emergence of resistance. Just last year, according to the Pharmaceutical Security Institute, known counterfeiting episodes involving anti-infective drugs rose 26%.

Now, NB: Activism against counterfeit drugs is politically complicated; it is supported by the pharma industry (PSI is a coalition of 26 manufacturers) and is tangled up with opposition to online pharmaceutical sales and to decisions by developing-world countries to abrogate Western drug patents. But that turf-defending by the pharma industry does not alter the reality that counterfeit drugs are an enormous international problem that imperil not only people unfortunate enough to take them, but anyone who contracts a resistant strain that those drugs helped foster.

And anyone concerned about MRSA will already know that resistant strains do not stay where they are generated. They have already demonstrated their ability to move rapidly around the world.

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