Deadly fake Viagra: Online pharmacies suspected of selling counterfeit drugs

Source: AP

WASHINGTON (KRON/CNN) — “Buy real Viagra here, for a fraction of the price! Free Shipping included! All without a prescription!” Such online ads may sound enticing, but health officials warn if an Internet pharmacy deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

And the risks are high. Taking the discounted drugs could end with deadly results.

You name it, you can find it on the Internet. All the popular brand-name drugs are readily available online at slashed prices, and often without a valid prescription. But what’s in the drugs?

In a 2014 annual report, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy concluded after sampling more than 11,000 Internet pharmacies that a staggering 96% of those pharmacies did not comply with NABP patient safety and pharmacy practice standards, or state and federal laws, and were deemed by the NABP as “not recommended.”

That heart medication being advertised at a fraction of the price might contain rat poison. The cholesterol lowering drug you are taking could be filled with brick dust. And the antibiotic may be filled with other toxic chemicals such as paint or inkjet material.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency found all these ingredients and more in counterfeit medications it seized, according to John Clark, the agency’s former deputy assistant secretary and now chief security officer and vice president of global security for Pfizer pharmaceuticals.

While it’s believed that the counterfeiters aren’t necessarily looking to poison people, Clark said it’s more about finding the cheapest binding agent they can get their hands on to maximize their profit.

Clark said that 78 counterfeit Pfizer medications have been found in 109 countries. And Viagra was the most popular fake drug.

The online sellers are clever, often advertising themselves as Canadian to ease the consumer’s mind about the source of the drugs. But many of those websites are phony, and the drugs are coming from counterfeiters all over the world, according to investigators. The countries topping the counterfeit drug manufacturing list are India and China.

Speaking anonymously, an online seller from Pakistan shared how easy it is to market counterfeit drugs. “We sell all over the world, to America, Europe, China, Iran and Iraq. All over. But we do not take these medications ourselves, nor do we recommend them to anyone we know, because they are not good quality medications.”

A counterfeiter in a nearby Pakistani market proudly showed off his operation to CNN. As he picked up bottles and capsules waiting to be assembled. He said, “We prepare whatever is in high demand. But everything is the same, no matter what we call it. We put the very same ingredients in all of these capsules, and the very same syrup in all of these bottles. Only the color is different.”

The World Health Organization estimates as many as 50% of illicit online pharmacies are selling counterfeit medications.

The profits are huge. In 2012, the WHO estimated the counterfeit drug trade was a $431 billion a year industry and growing. The WHO no longer provides estimates of counterfeit drugs “because of the difficulty of providing accurate measurement,” according to a report by the Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center.

Experts say the practice is so widespread it’s nearly impossible to track the depth and scope of the fake drug market.

According to Clark, part of the draw for counterfeiters is the “low risk and high reward.” He said, “The profit margins are phenomenal, and the industry is highly lucrative. And if the counterfeiter is caught, he or she often receives the minimum sentence,” which varies by country and can be as low as a fine and a few days in jail.

One of the main challenges of curbing the counterfeit trade is “a lack of universal laws that criminalize counterfeit medicine,” Clark said. “Right now it is handled differently country by country.”

“There needs to be global governance on this issue,” he added.

Clark said Pfizer is assisting law enforcement in preventing counterfeit Pfizer medicines from reaching patients by providing training to authorities in 149 countries, including Pakistan.

There are other signs of progress in the efforts to fight counterfeit drugs. From 2010 to 2014, Interpol’s Operation Pangea, with support from nations all over the globe, suspended 57,000 illicit online pharmacies and seized more than 30.3 million units of fake medications.

Pakistan, like many other countries, has created a special agency, the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan, in an effort to crack down on the problem.

In the U.S., the FDA says the 2013 Drug Supply Chain and Security Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, “is being implemented over several years, and will require drug manufacturers, re-packagers, wholesale distributors and dispensers to provide product and transaction information with each sale and notify the FDA and other stakeholders of illegitimate products.”

“This will result in improved detection and removal of potentially dangerous drugs from the supply chain,” the FDA said.

Despite these efforts, the global counterfeit drug trade is a booming business. With each website that is shut down, all it takes is a few simple keystrokes and the same seller can pop up again with a different URL.

An estimated 1 million people die every year from ingesting counterfeit drugs.

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