Love isn’t always the drug

Stuart Fuller

Counterfeiting is rife in the pharmaceutical industry, with fraudsters holding up to a third of the potential market, as discovered by NetNames in the Counting the Cost of Counterfeiting report. Counterfeiters have exploited the growing trend of consumers buying medicines online, as well as the skyrocketing demand for drugs only available under prescription. Since counterfeits can result in treatment failure or even death, it’s essential for pharmaceutical companies to take immediate action to protect their brand assets from irreparable damage. 

Prescription drugs are the largest market for counterfeit goods, worth approximately $200 billion annually. An estimated 10–30% of prescribed medicines in circulation in the world are counterfeit. And it’s not just a revenue issue for brand-holders – up to a million people die each year from counterfeit pharmaceuticals, which may by association cause reputational and brand damage issues.

The news that UK authorities seized a record level of counterfeit drugs last year hardly comes as a surprise. The seizures of one particular drug worth around £11m are just of the tip of the iceberg; it’s problem that faces not only the UK but also every economy in the world. Counterfeited drugs can never be classed as ‘victimless’ crimes; without any regulation on either the manufacturing conditions or, more importantly, the ingredients, nobody can be exactly sure what goes into fake drugs and what the effects will be on the end user.

One of the most affected drugs by counterfeiting is Viagra. Seen both as a recreational drug as well as one for treating medical issues, it’s only available legitimately via prescription. Illegitimately, it can supposedly be bought through hundreds of websites – but herein lies the danger. Pills designed to look like Viagra are sold online for as little as £2 each. Some may be a generic Indian version of the drug called Kamagra, but the majority will be inferior imitations.

Pfizer, the manufacturer of Viagra, examines products bought online (and offline) from websites around the world, and has so far found counterfeits being sold in 111 countries. Although some will be very poor quality copies, sold with cheap or no packaging, others require a laboratory test to determine the actual ingredients to prove they are counterfeit.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRSA) conducted its biggest-ever operation in early May in an attempt to find counterfeit drugs in raids across London. The value of seizures made by the MHRSA of counterfeit Viagra has more than tripled in the past 12 months to just over £11m, and represents more than 90% of the total fake drug seizures during that period.

In 2013, almost 14,000 websites hosted by illegal online pharmacies were identified and shut down, with one illicit online pharmaceutical network dismantled by US authorities reportedly having earned $55m in just two years.

Technology has made the manufacture, marketing and distribution of counterfeit drugs far too easy. It is imperative that the message of the dangers of fake drugs is shouted loud and clear by everyone involved in the industry; being part of the solution rather than the problem. The drug companies themselves can only do so much in terms of educating consumers on the risks in buying and using drugs from unauthorized sources.