The shocking truth about counterfeit drugs is laid bare
After speaking with many of the thousands of patients who choose Medical Specialists as their pharmacy, we are only too aware of the concerns, worries and hesitations that some people have when it comes to dealing with online pharmacies. We are part of a minority in that we are a fully registered, genuine pharmacy that prescribe genuine branded medication – No cheap and potentially fatal knock-offs like many online ‘pharmacies’! And now an investigation carried out by WKYC's Channel 3 News in America has exposed more of the murky, dangerous world of counterfeit drugs after shocking estimates show that around $75 billion worth of counterfeit drugs could have been obtained last year unknowingly. Some may remember the widely reported 2012 case of fake cancer drug Avastin being circulated in the supply chain. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had to alert medical practices in the U.S. that were suspected to have purchased and used the fakes. Avastin is an injectable medicine that is used to treat cancers of the brain, colon, kidney and lung. It is usually administered to patients in clinics, hospitals, and doctors’ offices. The fake Avastin worryingly did not contain the medicine’s active ingredient, bevacizumab, resulting in patients not receiving much needed treatment. The new investigation comprised of the purchasing of medications online that the investigators thought looked credible enough. The websites were found by searching ‘online pharmacy’ into Google. Then, they decided to try and obtain two incredible popular medications – erectile dysfunction treatment Viagra, and the ‘bad’ cholesterol-lowering medication Lipitor. The websites offered a variety of medications; some being brand-name prescription medications, whilst others were cheaper generic alternatives. Proudly displayed on the websites were images of the American and Canadian flags, and pictures of what appeared to be doctors and pharmacists…So far so good. However, next is where suspicions started to arise. ‘Female Viagra’ and ‘Viagra super active’ were just two of drugs being offered on some of the websites. Viagra has not been given approval to be used by women. Also, although the UK patent on Viagra expired earlier this year, meaning certain pharmaceutical companies can produce medications containing Sildenafil (Viagra’s active ingredient), Americans will have to patiently bide their time until 2020 for a generic alternative to hit their shores. Therefore, ‘Viagra super active’ should ring alarm bells immediately! It is either Pfizer-made Viagra, or none at all! In a move that should also set alarm bells off, two websites shockingly offered free samples of prescription-only medications with orders, such as another erectile dysfunction treatment, Cialis. Obviously there are questions within a doctor’s consultation that need to be asked to patients before any prescription item is approved and dispensed to the patient. After ordering Viagra and Lipitor from three websites, it was a few later before anything arrived. Packages then turned up from exotic locations like China, India and Pakistan, not America or Canada. Customs forms on the packages certainly raised eyebrows. One said the package contained ‘plastic beads’, another listed ‘cards’ and a third said ‘harmless medicine’. The drugs seemed to be genuine upon a quick glance. However, one not-so-minor problem… received was a generic Lipitor – not what the investigators had paid for. In another order, only half of the Viagra tablets had arrived that had been ordered and paid for. Next, the issue was; were the pills actually real? Samples of the drugs were then sent off to Pfizer's lab in Groton, Conn., for testing. Brian Donnelly is director of investigations for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. He is a qualified pharmacist, with 22 years of FBI work under his belt. Donnelly explained some shocking things about how the tablets were most likely produced. “The active ingredient in the chemical could be in one part of China. The person who makes the tablets could be in another part of China, and then the person who packages it could be a third person,” Donnelly says. Donnelly explains only one thing (besides big profit) is of importance to the counterfeiter. "It's not whether the medication works or not. It's whether or not it looks like the product. They may use floor wax on it to give it a shine. They may use automobile paint to give it colour. They've used ink cartridges for colour. We've seen boric acid used as a dilutent to give the tablet its size and shape. One of the favourite things for making the tablets is sheet-rock.” Donnelly's team works together with local law enforcement to stop dozens of counterfeit operations each year they bust the dirty labs which are the polar opposite of the hygiene, sterile environments where the genuine article is produced. "You have no idea how that drug's been manufactured. You have no idea how it's been stored," Donnelly says. In many cases, it is near impossible to distinguish a fake medication from its real counterpart, so agents use a device known as a TruScan. The device blasts a laser which analyses the drug’s chemical composition to determine authenticity. "As you can see, it failed. So this is counterfeit. It's counterfeit," Donnelly says after scanning one of the Viagra pills. However, not only was the pill fake, it gets worse. In one batch of counterfeits, the anti-inflammatory medication diclofenac was discovered to be mixed in, for seemingly no reason whatsoever. "When you get something that's contaminated with another drug, you have the potential for getting someone sick," Donnelly warns.