Counterfeit Drugs, Killing

By October 24, 2007Health Care, Media Relations

Many compelling reasons present themselves to oppose the spread of counterfeit drugs. Fakes represent theft of millions upon millions of dollars of value, undermine international protection of intellectual property, and its damage often redounds — unjustly — to pharmaceutical companies.

And counterfeits kill. This article in The American, the magazine of the American Enterprise Institute, documents the death that counterfeits spread throughout the developing world. Author Roger Bate, an AEI fellow, focuses on the harm afflicting Nigerians, especially those suffering from malaria. Not only do their diseases go untreated when they buy fake drugs, adulterated or diluted pharmaceutical dosages help diseases build drug resistance, endangering entire populations.

Many of these products con­tain no active ingredients at all—one survey in Cambodia showed that over 90 percent of the fake antima­larials seized there contained nothing more potent than chalk. Most of the products tested in Africa do contain some antimalarial compounds, but in many cases not enough to prevent disease—the patient isn’t cured but the parasite has a chance to build up the ability to resist the therapy and pass on that resis­tance to new generations of parasites. Weakened versions of real malaria drugs can do a great deal more harm in the long term than totally fake ones.

Researchers estimated that 86 percent of understrength medicines analyzed in Kenya and Congo came from India and China. Who makes the bad drugs? Some are deliberate perpetrators, faking the packaging and relabel­ing aspirin or chalk as an antimalarial. But other culprits are legitimate firms that are simply slack in their operations; with more effort, they might make a perfect copy of a malaria drug. Sometimes the entire firm is operating to unacceptable stan­dards; other times rogue employees work after hours to increase production and sell the drugs to criminal networks.

Bate also details how international aid organizations, such as WHO and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis, engage in practices that in effect encourage the spread of counterfeits. With U.S. taxpayers accounting for 35 percent of the Fund’s financing, Bate suggests it’s time for accountability, and he reports on successful anti-crime initiatives in Nigeria. In the process, Bate hits another reason for fighting fakes — they’re increasingly made and distributed by organized crime.

We point to this article for several reasons:

  • It’s a good reminder of the personal costs of fake drugs — death and misery.
  • It raises rarely mentioned reasons for fighting the spread of counterfeit pharmaceuticals.
  • In highlighting the endemic nature of fakes — mostly made in China and India — it provides a counterargument to those who contend importing drugs into the United States is a safe way to reduce health care costs.
  • It’s just one of many very interesting articles in “The American,” a high-quality and informative, pro-market magazine about news and policy. (We hadn’t seen it before this month.)
  • Finally, the article serves as a good peg for us to link to the NAM’s Oct. 23 news release, “NAM Joins USTR, Other Business Groups in New Intellectual Property Rights Initiative.”

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