One of the International Criminal Police Organization’s (Interpol) six priority crime research areas is drugs and criminal organizations. As reported in the New York Times on July 20, the organization is working with an informal group of researchers and government officials in Africa, Asia, and the US to track counterfeit drugs that claim to treat malaria, a disease that takes nearly 1 million lives a year. The counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals in developing countries has become rampant, as noted in my blog post last week. In 2008, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that more than 25 percent of medicines consumed in developing countries are counterfeit. And just today, the US Pharmacopeia (USP) issued a release that counterfeit drugs claiming to treat malaria are being removed from the Ghana market after a citizen notified the Medicines Quality Monitoring program. The monitoring program was set up by the US Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported Drug Quality and Information Program and implemented by USP.
The trend of faking pharmaceuticals is growing because of the vast amounts of money counterfeiters can make. Take this example from Martin Van Trieste, interim director of Rx-360, the new international pharmaceutical supply chain consortium: If a counterfeiter invests $2000 in faking a DVD, he may turn that into $20,000; if he invests $2000 into faking cocaine, he may turn that into $200,000; but if he invests $2000 into faking a pharmaceutical drug, he may turn that money into $2 million! At the same time, the punishment for getting caught counterfeiting pharmaceuticals is far less severe than for counterfeiting illegal recreational drugs such as cocaine, says the NYT article.
According to the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, any person who knowingly sells, purchases, trades, counterfeits (or offers to do these things) a fake pharmaceutical product “shall be imprisoned for not more than 10 years or fined not more than $250,000, or both.” Illegal drug counterfeiting, on the other hand, comes with an imprisonment of “up to 20 years.” Penalties in developing countries are even more lax.
Interpol and the informal research group are using new technology involving an ion gun and mass spectrometers that can almost instantly identify what’s in a product and determine its authenticity. Interpol is also working with the UNODC, the World Health Organization, and the World Customs Organization to stop counterfeiting and drug trafficking.
These international efforts are well and good, but if the punishment doesn’t match the crime, what’s to deter counterfeiters? We don’t often hear of stakeouts of pharmaceutical counterfeiters on the news—because this crime is not a priority. If a counterfeiter can fake thousands of lots of pharmaceutical products, make several hundreds of thousands of dollars, and not get caught, what’s to stop him? Even if he does get caught, a fine of $250,000 is only a drop in the bucket compared with the money he may be bringing in. Meanwhile, thousands of individuals in need of real treatment may be getting a drug product that’s not going to help them because it’s fake. And meanwhile, a child is dying every 30 seconds from malaria.
We need a stronger system for punishing pharmaceutical counterfeiters before it’s too late.