Criminals cashing in on fake swine flu medicines


European medicine authorities are growing increasingly alarmed by the number of bogus swine flu remedies being sold over the Internet. The news comes as MEPs gear up to debate new rules covering counterfeit medicines.

The European Medicines Agency (EMEA) is warning that criminal gangs are trying to cash in on the H1N1 flu pandemic by selling fake or low-quality antiviral medicines and vaccines online. 

Some fake drugs contain no active ingredients while others are laced with sugar, rat poison and other medicines, according to industry sources. The EMEA says these products present a serious health risk for those who buy them. 

The temptation to buy illegal medicines over the Internet has been heightened by concerns that not all European governments have stockpiled enough medicines to treat the entire population. 

It was reported earlier this year that Tamiflu has overtaken Viagra as the drug most commonly advertised in spam emails – spawning the term ‘Spamiflu’. 

A European Commission spokesperson said customs officials are working to stop the import of fake medicines into Europe and are checking parcels of medicines ordered online. 

A pandemic of online scams 

In the US, the medicines regulator has issued a public warning against falling prey to online scam artists selling swine flu cures such as sterilisers and unlicensed pills claiming to boost the immune system. 

The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) fraud unit said new fraudulent products began emerging last spring at a rate of ten per day. That number declined during the summer but has since picked up. 

The FDA bought and tested five products claiming to be Tamiflu but none were authentic. 

Consumers are also being warned against forking out for expensive cleaning products and antibacterial sprays which claim to kill flu viruses, with experts and industry groups saying ordinary soap is just as effective. 

Industry fighting rearguard action against fakes 

As MEPs prepare to legislate against counterfeit medicines, Europe’s pharmaceutical industry has launched its favoured solution to verify whether pharmacists are selling authentic products. 

Around 1% of medicines sold in Europe are estimated to be counterfeit and some of these find their way into the legitimate distribution chain. EFPIA, the umbrella group for research-based pharma firms, last week unveiled a new 2-D barcode system. 

A pilot scheme is underway in Sweden to help iron out practical issues that might arise. Using the system, a code is applied to each pack of medicine and is then scanned by the pharmacists at the point of sale. It can immediately tell whether the pack is genuine and if it has previously been dispensed. 

The trial will conclude in November and industry groups are pushing for a harmonised and interoperable system to be rolled out in all 27 EU countries. 

However, pharmacists and wholesalers have previously expressed concern that any system for verifying medicines should not add disproportionately to their cost base or workload. 

Medicines regulator backs two-shot vaccine 

Meanwhile, the EMEA said last week that giving two doses of the swine flu vaccine is preferable, even though many governments are opting for single-dose immunisation protocols. 

One dose of the vaccine may be sufficient in adults, said the agency, but the data to date does not conclusively support a single-shot strategy. The two jabs should be given at least three weeks apart. 

Initially, experts believed two doses of vaccine would be required for everyone but clinical trials have suggested that one may suffice. Many governments are now planning to give adults just one dose of the vaccine, thus cutting costs and stretching supplies. 

The pharma industry body, EFPIA, urged consumers, pharmacists and doctors to be vigilant. "EFPIA remains concerned by the threat of counterfeiting. Whilst our organisation has taken a positive step to address counterfeiting in the legitimate supply chain, via our pilot coding initiative, we recognise that this can only be part of the overall package of measures. We are aware of the risk of counterfeits available via the Internet, and would urge the public to source all materials from healthcare professionals within the legitimate supply chain. This should ensure that any purchases or prescriptions dispensed are as intended, safe and fit for purpose," said a spokesperson. 

In a statement posted in its website, the European Medicines Agency (EMEA), said: "Counterfeits may include fakes which do not contain any of the medicine or contain the wrong medicine.The EU has a strong legal framework for the licensing, manufacturing and distribution of medicines. The EMEA, the European Commission and the member states cooperate closely to combat fake medicines. This cooperation also inlcudes the Council of Europe (in particular EDQM) and WHO (IMPACT)."

The European Union is cracking down on the sale of fake online medicines as part of a regulatory overhaul of the pharmaceutical sector. 

Last year, the European Commission published its 'pharma package', which included a proposal for a new directive on counterfeit medicines (EURACTIV 11/12/08). 

MEPs will debate the proposals in the coming weeks, but several leading parliamentarians have indicated that the failure to legislate against fake medicines sold over the Internet is a major weakness in the draft new law (EURACTIV 01/10/09). 

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation declared the H1N1 virus to be a full-scale flu pandemic, making it the first pandemic for more than half a century (EURACTIV 30/04/09). 

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