WADA discusses drug industry role in catching Olympic cheats

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

WADA, London 2012, Usain Bolt, Paralympics, doping, GSK, Roche
From Usain Bolt’s lightspeed sprint double to Russell Brand’s brave but distinctly off-key mauling of the Beatles classic ‘I am the Walrus’ during the closing ceremony, the performances at the London 2012 Olympics were never less than spectacular.

But while Messrs Bolt and Brand got the headlines, behind the scenes efforts to ensure competitors were playing by the rules were no less impressive according to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) spokesman Terence O'Rorke who told in-Pharmatechnologist.com how the drug industry is helping in the fight against cheats.

Over the last couple of years WADA has been developing partnerships with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries and these partnerships have resulted in information sharing that has benefited the development of detection methods​.”

O'Rorke cited WADA’s work with Swiss drugmaker Hoffman La Roche​ during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – which led to the sanctioning of several athletes - and a similar collaboration with UK firm GSK​ as examples of the work being done.

Beyond this WADA has also partnered with the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (IFPMA) and Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO) to launch a campaign​ to foster even greater collaboration with the drug industry he continued.

Later this year, IFPMA, BIO and WADA will co-host a conference in Paris as part of its ‘2 Fields 1 Goal’ initiative that will further explore ways that the pharmaceutical and biotech industries can assist in the fight against doping in sport​.”

Scale of the problem?

Such collaborations are all well and good and – as evidenced by Roche’s work with WADA – can help catch athletes trying to gain an edge through the misuse of pharmaceutical products, but they do not address the underlying problem of where the drugs come from in the first place.

We put this to O'Rorke, who explained that tracking the origin of the compounds used by sports cheats is a complex problem.

In some countries these substances are freely available, while many athletes are known to order substances from illegal laboratories via the internet, and others obtain them through unscrupulous doctors.

The supply of performance enhancing substances is big business and illegal laboratories exist in many areas of the world, in particular Asia​.”

He also cited data from Interpol and the World Customs Organization suggesting that “the same underworld figures involved in gambling, corruption and other illegal activities are now involved in setting up the ‘backstreet’ labs that are the source of many of these substances.

We also asked if lax security measures at pharmaceutical firms can sometimes allow drug products to find their way into the lockers of sports cheats, but O'Rorke declined to speculate.

"WADA is not privy to information that would enable it to comment on security within the pharmaceutical industry."

Testing lab

Now the Olympics are over the focus of the WADA testing team has switched to the Paralympics, which start next week. The main testing laboratory for both events is at a facility in Harlow, Essex operated by UK drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

The laboratory, which will have analysed more than 6,000 samples when the Paralympics finish next month, has been earmarked for closure by GSK since 2010. 

The plan now​ is that the lab will operate as a drug research centre for academics funded by the UK Government's Medical Research Council (MRC).

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