From bogus electronic parts in military equipment to lethal food safety scandals, fake drugs are yet another component on an increasingly dangerous list of counterfeit goods manufactured in China. Despite another crackdown by authorities, removing the toxic concoctions from the supply chain is likely to be an uphill battle.
In the July crackdown which involved around 18 000 police officers, nearly 2000 people were detained, $180 million worth of counterfeit drugs and false trademark logos were seized, and 1100 production facilities were destroyed.
Police discovered fake or adulterated drugs for treating a range of illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension, rabies, skin diseases and cancer, with the potential to cause problems ranging from liver and kidney damage to cardiac arrest.
According to a report by the London based International Policy Network, China is one of the world’s largest producers of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and, following a series of scandals this year, concerns about the prevalence of counterfeit drugs are growing.
Earlier in the year authorities in Zhejiang Province discovered hospital workers reselling old packages to drug counterfeiters to refill with fake drugs.
In April, capsules manufactured from leather scraps and tainted with chromium caused a recall of 13 kinds of medicine. The drugs had the potential to cause serious organ damage.
Then, in a smaller crackdown in May, authorities arrested 200 people accused of making and selling fake drugs.
The problem is not confined to China’s borders, with counterfeit drug ingredients having previously found their way out of the country. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, Chinese drug suppliers were the source of contaminated ingredients for the blood thinner heparin, which caused the deaths of 80 people and complications in hundreds of others in the US in 2008.
But apart from a few, highly publicised arrests, repeated promises by the government to increase regulations have seen little improvement. Corruption and high profits reaped by counterfeiters have exacerbated the issue.
The manufacture of fake drugs has become harder to detect due to increasingly sophisticated counterfeiting operations.
China’s Ministry of Public Security acknowledged: “The crime of making fake drugs is still far from eradicated, and criminals are coming up with new schemes, becoming craftier and better able to deceive.”
A variety of sales channels also allow counterfeiters to sell directly to customers, making the problem harder to control. Suspects in the recent crackdown were found to have advertised drugs online, in newspapers and on television.
The Ministry said: “The criminals’ methods were despicable and have caused people to boil with rage,” and has advised consumers to purchase only from hospitals, pharmacies and trusted vendors.
China’s universities and pharmaceutical companies, including foreign companies such as Roche Holdings and Pfizer, have been investing in the development of drugs in the country over the past few years, providing incentive for officials to protect the pharmaceutical market.
IMS Health data indicates that sales of pharmaceuticals in China are expected to nearly triple to $115 billion between 2021 and 2015.
Having previously adopted drastic measures to combat counterfeit drugs, including the execution in 2007 of the SFDA head who accepted bribes to approve deadly medicine, the Ministry of Public Security is offering cash incentives of up to $8000 to those who help uncover bogus drug operations. But with previous methods having had little effect, sustained and serious measures will be needed to have any hope of reigning in the counterfeiters.