Drug counterfeiters changing tactics to bypass EU customs

By Emilie Reymond

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Fake drugs Authentication Pharmaceutical industry

Drug counterfeiters are changing their trafficking tactics to
smuggle fake drugs into Europe.

According to new data released by the European Commission last week, in 2005, 148 counterfeit drug shipments were stopped at the EU borders, with three quarters of them originating from India.

With these statistics, it would appear on the surface that India has become a hub in the traffic of fake drugs. Interestingly though, India was only the origin of one per cent of the total amount of fake medicines seized - in terms of quantity, Indonesia is leading the way with 16 per cent of the 500,000 fake drugs seized originating there.

Furthermore, last year's statistics show that there has been an increase in the number of incidences of fake goods seized by European customs in general, however, the actual overall volume of goods seized has dropped.

"2005 is the first year a breakdown of this data for medicines has been made, so it is impossible to give a direct comparison with previous years, however it is clear that European customs have seen a shift in counterfeit drugs traffic with counterfeiters now splitting quantities of drugs and sending them via different routes,"​ Maria Assimakopoulou, a spokesperson for the European Commission told In-Pharmatechnologist.com.

This scenario is typical of the way counterfeiters now operate to bypass new customs measures implemented to tackle the transport of fake drugs, she said.

"They now understand measures adopted by European customs and looking at last year's statistics, it seems that, as a result, they tend to send smaller quantities using new transit routes."

One striking example of this is Switzerland, which has become a new route now used by counterfeiters to ship fake drugs whereas it didn't appear in the statistics in previous years.

"Earlier this year, a shipment of 350 kg of fake pharmaceuticals, which were stopped in the UK, were originally dispatched from China transiting through the United Arab Emirates, and then UK with a final destination in the Bahamas,"​ said EU Taxation and Customs Commissioner László Kovács to illustrate how complex the routing of counterfeits is becoming.

"The process is even more complicated because this was an Internet order placed from Canada."

Indeed, he warned that the increasing use of Internet to sell fake medicines increases the challenge customs face.

"Fake medicines remain one of the most dangerous forms of counterfeiting,"​ he said.

According to Kovács, a wider range of products are now being targeted, including antibiotics, cancer drugs, anti-cholesterol tablets and even common items such as paracetamol. He said that Viagra, however, still remains the counterfeiters' favourite.

One further point of interest from the European Commission's statistics is that China, which has had a reputation of being the worst offender when it comes to exporting counterfeit medicines, doesn't seem to be heavy in the balance with only one per cent of the number of fake pharmaceuticals seized at the EU borders coming from the country.

This is despite the fact that China is believed to be the world's number one source of counterfeit drugs, in a market estimated by the World Health Organisation to be worth a staggering $35bn (€27bn) a year.

Meanwhile, in response to the European Commission's findings, the pharmaceutical industry has consequently and obviously expressed its concerns about the significant number of fake drugs sold in the EU, which is showing no sign of weakening.

The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) said that the growing phenomenon of fake medicines transiting in Europe was a global issue requiring collective actions.

"The scourge of counterfeit medicines reinforces the need to tightly secure the entire pharmaceutical supply chain in Europe as international traders take advantage of more open borders and new technologies to conduct their criminal business without any scruple for people's health,"​ said Thomas Zimmer, chair of EFPIA's anti-counterfeiting working group.

"By all means, patients must be encouraged to purchase prescription medicines through authorised distribution channels only!"

Zimmer stressed that while national authorities and international organisations were responsible for the prevention and control of counterfeiting, the pharma industry had its role to play in tackling the spreading of fake drugs.

He also emphasised how important a role the manufacturers, repackagers, wholesalers, distributors and pharmacies had to play in the issue.

"As the originator of the product, the manufacturer has an obvious role to play in product authentication and supply chain control efforts with new technologies, track and trace initiatives, procedures for counterfeit prevention,"​ Zimmer said.

Part of the solution might lie in advanced tracking systems, such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), which could solve the problem at the root by helping companies avoid counterfeit pharmaceuticals entering the supply chain.

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