Billions of dollars in counterfeit medicines

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Growing prevalence of counterfeit drugs

According to customs officials, the sale of counterfeit medicines has increased massively across Germany in recent years. This sometimes involves massive threats to the health of patients, since the plagiarism often contains too little active substance, contains incorrect or no active substances, warn the pharmaceutical manufacturers.

According to the experts, the counterfeit medicines entail massive, significant health risks, because the wrong composition does not produce the desired effect, resistance to the drug is developed and, in the worst case, fatal complications, pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer report. The sexual enhancer "Viagra" produced by Pfizer is one of the most common counterfeit medicines worldwide. But the plagiarism is no longer limited to so-called "lifestyle medications" such as erectile dysfunction, slimming or anti-hair loss products, but cancer drugs, cholesterol-lowering or flu drugs are also increasingly affected, warned customs.

Counterfeit medicinal products hardly recognizable According to the information provided by customs, around ten million counterfeit medicines were seized in Germany in 2010 alone. The differences between the original preparations and the plagiarism for the layperson are mostly not recognizable. When comparing the small blue Viagra tablets with the corresponding counterfeits, there are hardly any differences to be seen with the naked eye. Both preparations have the logo of the US pharmaceutical company on the front and the back is marked with a number. Only upon closer inspection is it noticeable that the original preparation is a little lighter and a little larger than the counterfeit, said Pfizer Germany spokesman Martin Fensch, adding: "For normal users, the two tablets are extremely difficult to distinguish." The view of the customs crime expert Wolfgang Schmitz shows the massive increase in the number of plagiarism seized, how lucrative the counterfeiting business is for criminal groups. Nowhere is "the profit margin higher than in the trade in counterfeit medicines", emphasized Schmitz. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer estimates sales of counterfeit medicines in Europe alone at 10.5 billion euros per year. The profit per kilogram of counterfeit Viagra tablets is a hundred times higher than with the same amount of heroin, the company spokesman said.

International action against counterfeit medicines The counterfeit medicines business is operated by highly organized gangs, comparable to the groups involved in the drug or arms trade, emphasized Schmitz, the customs crime expert. The groups are also highly prepared to use violence, Schmitz continued. In the past year alone, according to the information provided by the Customs Criminal Police Office, 914 cases of counterfeit medicines were uncovered across Germany, and this year too, 268 investigations were already underway for violations of the Medicines Act. Since the gangs are mostly structured internationally, Schmitz says that a cross-national approach against the sale of counterfeit drugs is necessary. International authorities had a significant search success last month and were able to secure counterfeit medicines worth around EUR 4.6 million. According to Interpol, investigators from 81 countries took action against the counterfeit medicines as part of the one-week operation "Pangea IV", shut down 13,500 websites and seized 2.4 million counterfeit tablets. As Schmitz explained, the intervention was preceded by months of planning, which was reflected in the success of the campaign. The sheer volume of counterfeit goods seized is a clear sign of how the counterfeit drug business is booming and how secure traders feel from being accessed by the investigative authorities, the customs agency expert said.

Dangerous substances in counterfeit drugs According to the Customs Criminal Police Office, around one percent of the drugs sold in Germany are counterfeit. Abroad, the proportion is significantly higher and reach up to 60 percent in developing countries, said the customs crime expert. According to customs estimates, around 10 percent of counterfeit medicines in the medicines sold can be assumed worldwide. According to the experts, most of these drug counterfeits come from India or China. For the patients, the counterfeit preparations represent a health threat that should not be underestimated. Because, instead of the intended active ingredients, extremely questionable substances are often processed. For example, lead paints, boric acid and floor cleaners were detected in a plagiarism of a Pfizer pain reliever in South America, reports the spokesman for the pharmaceutical company. In another plagiarism that was discovered in Canada and Hungary, talcum powder or even the amphetamine “Speed” was discovered instead of the active pharmaceutical ingredient.

Particular caution when buying medicines on the Internet Most of the counterfeit medicines are sold on the Internet, although the reputable online portal can often hardly be distinguished from the questionable providers. According to the experts, the address given in the legal notice can be used as a guideline for the trustworthiness of the so-called internet pharmacies. As the Federal Association of German Pharmacists' Associations (ABDA) said last year, patients who order medication via dubious Internet addresses in exotic countries run the risk of not only ruining their health, but risking their lives. The safest source for a drug is therefore "the pharmacy around the corner", said the ABDA. In any case, customers should refrain from buying medicines online, if no imprint is given, the experts warned. (fp)

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Image: Andrea Damm /

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Video: The Dangers of Counterfeit Drugs First of Two Parts


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