What’s Hidden in the Medicine Cabinet? Combating Counterfeit Drugs

Tabletten unter die Lupe

(DGIwire) — When we get cold medicine from the pharmacist, how sure are we that it’s the real thing? We take it; it seems to work. We feel better, after all. Plus we’re in the United States, so these things are relatively well-regulated here. But in much of the world—and maybe even for us—many drugs, both over-the-counter and prescription, can fall victim to increasingly sophisticated counterfeiting measures.

What leads to counterfeit drugs? According to the World Health Organization, reasons include: lack of political will and commitment; inappropriate or lacking drug legislation; weak or absent drug regulation; weak enforcement and criminal consequences; corruption; conflict of interest; demand outpacing supply; high drug prices; lack of regulation by exporting countries or within free trade zones, and complex trade involving several intermediaries.

The Emerging Markets Health Network cites reports showing that a significant 5.2 percent of over-the-counter drugs are counterfeit. In 2006, Pfizer in Malaysia found that 4.8 percent of products being sold as prescription drugs were fake, including Viagra, Norvasc, Lipitor and others. The previous year, the Pharmaceutical Association of Malaysia found that five percent of prescription drugs sold in the country—such as eye drops, inhalers and antibiotics—were counterfeit. For prescription erectile dysfunction medication, the incidence of counterfeit was a whopping 8.5 percent.

The cost of those drugs: an estimated $1.71 billion in 2012 in Malaysia alone. For developing countries, where the population is typically poorer and in increased need of proper medical care compared to developed nations, that can deliver a harsh blow to the economy. Patients’ mortality can rise because of adverse effects from toxic substances in the fake drugs, not to mention from the lack of treatment for their condition. Toxic substances can include heavy metals and additives such as steroids. Drug resistance can develop to antimicrobial medicines, especially antibiotics, anti-malarial drugs and anti-retrovirals. Perhaps most troubling, fake drugs lead to decreased confidence in the health system, with the public less likely to seek treatment when ill. In order to combat fake drugs, fixes are necessary.

Applied DNA Sciences, a company based in Stony Brook, NY, has developed a suite of products designed to protect against all kinds of counterfeit products, including drugs.  For example, a marker, based on plant DNA, can be embedded into the ink and paper used for drug labels and identified at any point along the supply chain. By creating unique, unbreakable markers, Applied DNA allows manufacturers to tag their products and help to ensure that they do not fall victim to counterfeiting. With verification process as simple as using a black light or as complex as conducting lab tests, it’s a boon to both consumers and producers in ensuring that the highest-quality product—the real thing—reaches shelves.

“Counterfeiting is damaging to everyone but criminals,” says Dr. James A. Hayward, CEO of Applied DNA Sciences. “Our DNA markers offer a tool to address the problem by putting indelible marks on many products that need them.”