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HomeCRIMEThe booming business of fake medicines in India

The booming business of fake medicines in India

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Almost one-third of popular medicines – antibiotics, anti-allergic, vitamins, painkillers, syrups and life-saving drugs sold in India are fake, counterfeit, or substandard. What’s more, nearly 35% of fake drugs sold all over the world originate from India.

In October 2009, a shipment of 21,600 counterfeit Viagra pills from India was seized at Miami International Airport. In March 2010, Czech customs officers seized 5,200 tablets of counterfeit Viagra and Cialis, worth over USD 105,810, in a parcel from India—the largest consignment of this kind in several years. Most of the counterfeit drugs in Europe are imported from China, India, Pakistan, and other Asian countries. Both India and China are reportedly among the biggest exporters of illegal medicinal products.

According to “Fake and Counterfeit Drugs in India –Booming Biz”– report prepared by ASSOCHAM, the spurious drugs market is growing at the rate of 25% annually.

World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) describe counterfeit drugs as medications that have been falsely labelled to deliberately fool consumers. Fake medicines form a big chunk of India’s domestic drug market, and it is one of the highest growing markets in the country.

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According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union’s Intellectual Property Office, India is the world’s leading producer of fake drugs. Just one-fourth of the 12,000 manufacturing units in India comply with the WHO’s good manufacturing practices.

The national capital region (NCR), which includes Delhi as well as Gurgaon, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida is one of the biggest hub for spurious drugs. Fake medicines constitute nearly one-third of all drugs sold in NCR. Apart from these, Agra is a big market for fake drugs in India. In the past few months several instances have come to light where drug syndicates have hired warehouses to stock large quantities of synthetic drugs, including Tramadol pain relief injections and Alprazolam tablets.

Also Read: Fakes don’t kill brands; they kill businesses

Generally speaking antibiotics and anti-malarial medicines are amongst the most common medical products being sold in every nook and corner of the world.

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Fake medicines can be counterfeit, contaminated or mislabeled. Rather than making you better, such medicines can cause more harm than good.

Some of the reasons behind the flourishing illegal drug trade include weaknesses in the drug distribution system, inadequate regulations, shortage of drug inspectors, lack of awareness among consumers, and a lack of lab facilities to check the purity of drugs.

Hoarding and black-marketing of fake and spurious medicines and medical devices is a punishable offense with many shades of grey.

One of the most prevalent modus-operandi is hoarding or stocking medicines and medical devices in anticipation of a shortage or scarcity. This practice promotes black marketing or selling the medicines at a premium due to the shortage.

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Another common practice is the sale of illicit or counterfeit medicines that do not or contain an inadequate (too little, too much, or none at all) amount of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) which help to cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent disease. Some fake medicines have been found to contain mercury, arsenic, rat poison, or cement. Such fake drugs fail to control the disease and might cause side effects or worsening of the disease.

In other cases, the medicines may be genuine but have been stolen and then badly stored or may have expired. This means they could be ineffective or contaminated.

Substandard and falsified medical products are sometimes known to be contaminated with bacteria and other impurities. They are often produced in very poor and unhygienic conditions by unqualified personnel.  However, they are often difficult to detect and invariable appear to be very similar to the genuine product in the market. At times they not only fail to treat the disease for which they were intended but also lead to serious health consequences including death.

In a large number of cases the substandard and falsified medical products peddled by unregulated pharmacies, and websites have been found to contain corn starch, potato starch, or chalk. Unregulated websites, allow people to buy these drugs without a prescription all over the world. Invariably such substandard products have been found to contain the wrong active ingredient or the wrong amount of the correct active ingredient. Consumption of such substandard and toxic medical products may lead to antimicrobial resistance and drug-resistant infections.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic led to a sudden surge in demand for personal protection, and hygiene products. This proved to be a blessing in disguise for the counterfeiters who started selling substandard PPE kits, surgical masks, fake ‘coronavirus medicine’ and diagnostic equipment.

Raids conducted by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) across 90 countries, led to the seizure of nearly 34,000 substandard antiviral medicines, sprays, and masks. Chloroquine, Vitamin C, and painkillers were among the most traded counterfeit products in the market. Investigations revealed the involvement of more than 2,000 online websites selling COVID-19-related fake products all over the globe.  

The situation was an eye-opener for the pharma companies who need to implement technologies that will counter the issue of increasing counterfeiting.

Though the pharma companies have introduced security features like holograms to prevent piracy and sale-purchase of spurious medicines the counterfeiters have become smart enough to copy them with the improvement in digital printing.

Experts suggest an ideal way to tackle the current situation is the adoption of newer technology. Technologies like Developments in AI (Artificial Intelligence), Blockchain, Big Data Analytics, and Data Science have the capability to completely change how the Indian pharmaceutical industries work. These advanced technologies can help manufacturers control track product movement until it reaches the end-user.

One such technology is the track and trace solution using the serialization method which is being widely used by major pharmaceutical industries across the globe. It involves assigning unique identifier codes printed on every product. It helps curb counterfeiting and allows the end-users to authenticate their purchases by scanning the codes at any stage of the retail chain using the mobile app.

In India, the Drugs and Cosmetics (Amendment) Act, 2008 provides for stringent penalties for those involved in the trade of spurious drugs. Some of these offences are non-bailable. This apart, the Whistleblower Scheme introduced by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare provides for giving rewards to any individual who gives information related to fake drugs.

The laws empower enforcement agencies to seize and confiscate adulterated, spurious or misbranded goods and to suspend the manufacturing licences of the people involved in such counterfeiting activities.

There is a need for specially designated courts and regulatory infrastructure to ensure speedy trial of such offenses with severe, sure, and swift punishment.

The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) should get to the root of the problem and grant more powers and operational freedom to drug inspectors to register FIRs, arrest and prosecute those responsible for manufacturing or sale of poor quality or fake medicines.

Manufacturing units in India should comply with good manufacturing practices recommended by WHO. Pharmaceutical products should not be produced in people’s garages. Counterfeit drug retailers should be made answerable for procuring unsafe medicines from dubious suppliers.

A joint effort is needed so that well-defined protocols are followed to help combat the crisis of fake drugs and ensure the safety of patients.

The government must ensure that patient safety takes precedence over geography, and patients get the safest medicines available, irrespective of whether it comes from the domestic market or overseas.

From the consumer point of view, “six Ps” need to be kept in mind while buying medicines:

Place – Always buy medicines from a known pharmacy. This applies to both online and offline suppliers.

Prescriptions – Only buy medicine that has been prescribed by your doctor or healthcare professional. 

Promises – Be wary of pharmacies that offer “too good to be true” promises or false promises to “cure-all types” of illness.

Price – Check the price against products you usually buy or with reputable providers. If it is substantially cheaper, it is likely to be a fake.

Privacy – Do not reveal any personal information beyond appropriate medical details.

Product – Compare the medicines against your usual prescription. A medicine is fake if:

  • It contains too much, too little, or any different ingredients;
  • Claims to have different properties or side effects;
  • Has a different shape, size, taste or colour;
  • Is not correctly labelled or not labelled at all;
  • Has an out-of-date or missing expiry date;
  • Does not contain information on how to store the medicine;
  • The packaging looks poorly constructed or appears to have interfered with;
  • There are spelling or grammatical errors on the packaging or instructions.

If you suspect you have seen fake medical products for sale (either online or offline), report it to your local police or health regulatory authority.

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Neeraj Mahajan
Neeraj Mahajanhttps://n2erajmahajan.wordpress.com/
Neeraj Mahajan is a hard-core, creative and dynamic media professional with over 35 years of proven competence and 360 degree experience in print, electronic, web and mobile journalism. He is an eminent investigative journalist, out of the box thinker, and a hard-core reporter who is always hungry for facts. Neeraj has worked in all kinds of daily/weekly/broadsheet/tabloid newspapers, magazines and television channels like Star TV, BBC, Patriot, Sunday Observer, Sunday Mail, Network Magazine, Verdict, and Gfiles Magazine.


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