Fake Medicine Is A Bigger Problem Than You Think

Counterfeit pharmaceuticals are potentially dangerous, sometimes fatal—and they seem to be on the rise.

Illustrations by Raymond Biesinger

In 2016, an estimated 595,690 patients passed away from cancer. That same year, there were over 15.5 million Americans with a history of this terrible illness for whom it was not fatal. This is because the slivers of hope around cancer treatment have only grown larger over the years, with new, innovative medicines and treatments more available than ever before.

Between 2011 and 2016, 70 new cancer treatments were launched globally. source

There are those who would take advantage of the undeniable gravity of a cancer diagnosis. A statement released earlier this year by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration warned of this threat. "A cancer diagnosis often provokes a sense of desperation. Unfortunately, rogue operations exploiting those fears peddle untested and potentially dangerous products, particularly on the internet," write Donald Ashley, director of the agency’s Office of Compliance at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, and Douglas Stearn, director of the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Import Operations in the Office of Regulatory Affairs.

Rogue operations are also participating in the market for counterfeit medicine, manufacturing medications for cancer and other illnesses.

In 2017, international authorities seized 25 million counterfeit medicines—in just one week. source

Counterfeit medicine can look identical to legitimate medicine from an approved manufacturer and pharmacy, and the packaging can, too. In the internet age, it’s also available at the touch of a button online.

It’s logical that people seek out medications online, as they do for many other products. Buying online tends to be quick and convenient, and also grants anonymity to those who might feel uncomfortable discussing their personal health.

Some estimates say that 10 percent of pharmaceuticals in the global supply chain are counterfeit. source

In 2017, 95.8 percent of the online pharmacies–more than 11,000–reviewed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy were out of compliance and listed as not recommended. Source

It is up to governments, pharmaceutical companies, care providers, and patients to all remain vigilant and engaged in ensuring that medicines are legitimate. Otherwise, there’s an ever-growing possibility that medicines will be counterfeit—and could fail to treat consumers or even actively harm them. Though exact statistics are hard to calculate, it is estimated that between 100,000 and one million consumers die every year as a result of counterfeit medicine.

Research has found that if there is no physical address listed for an online pharmacy, there is a 50 percent chance the drugs are counterfeit. source

But the same risks are present in developed countries, particularly among older patients who may not want to travel to brick-and-mortar pharmacies. Online pharmacies are hard to regulate and verify, and there’s no telling where the drugs are sourced.

In 2016, authorities from 44 countries seized more than 6.6 million doses of counterfeit versions of Pfizer medicines. source

Studies show that over 50 percent of online pharmacies offered foreign or nonFDA-approved medicines. source

Unless governments, pharmaceutical companies, care providers, and patients all remain vigilant and engaged in ensuring that medicines are legitimate, there’s an ever-growing possibility that they’re not, and they could fail to treat or even actively harm consumers. Though an exact statistic is hard to calculate, it is estimated that between 100,000 and one million consumers die every year as a result of counterfeit medicine.

In 2016, authorities from 44 countries seized more than 7.3 million doses of counterfeit version of Pfizer medicines.

But the same risks are present in developed countries, particularly among older patients who may not want to travel to brick-and-mortar pharmacies. Online pharmacies are hard to regulate and verify, and there’s no telling where the drugs are sourced.

Research has found that if there is no physical address listed for an online pharmacy, there is a 50 percent chance the drugs are counterfeit. source

Studies show that over 50 percent of online pharmacies offered foreign or non-FDA approved medicines. source

In some cases, a counterfeit drug simply doesn’t contain the active ingredient that would make it effective. But other versions offer much worse; inspectors and authorities have seized counterfeit medicines that contained:

  • Toxic pesticides
  • Highway paint
  • Rat poison
  • Heavy metals
  • Floorwax
  • Chalk
  • And worse.

In partnership with global law enforcement agencies, Pfizer Global Security alone has investigated and collected evidence to seize counterfeit versions of Pfizer medications in more than 100 countries. Combine that with the seizures of counterfeit medicines by other major governments, and the global impact of the problem is unmistakable. Counterfeiters work on almost every continent, often using unsanitary, outdated equipment, and they’re not always who we expect: Culprits are often white-collar criminals who focus on expensive pharmaceuticals or pharmaceutical products with brand recognition for quality and efficacy.

Since 2004, working with global law enforcement, Pfizer security has prevented approximately 233 million counterfeit doses from reaching patients. source

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Significantly lower costs for medicines are often a telltale sign of a counterfeit, experts warn. A legitimate online pharmacy must also require a prescription, provide a phone number and address based in the customer’s country, and display a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites seal.

Other key things to look for include confirmation that the website’s URL ends with “.pharmacy” and that the website is on the FDA’s list of approved, verified online pharmacies. The website should also provide contact and background information for a licensed, human pharmacist associated with the practice.

Pharmaceutical companies have a part to play, too. They have their own investigative teams that not only track down counterfeit drug manufacturers and distributors, but also work closely with federal law enforcement to produce and implement new policies and regulations. New technologies can also help them closely track their product, as well as make sure that the only drugs being distributed are those made by trusted manufacturers.

When it comes to medicine, vigilance is warranted from all players, sellers and buyers alike. Convenience isn’t always worth the risk.