Bad News about Counterfeits -- "Over There" is now "Over Here"

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  • 02/22/2012

How did counterfeit Avastin enter the American drug supply? One reason is that profiteers masquerading as pharmacists are selling unsafe, unregulated, mislabeled, repacked, and co-mingled drugs to unsuspecting consumers – in Europe. “Over there” the cause of this malaise is known as parallel trade. Here at home we call it by another name -- drug importation. Whatever the moniker, its bad medicine. European parallel trade is the weak link in the western world’s supply chain – and the direct cause of our current misadventures with Avastin.

Last year over 140 million individual drug packages were parallel imported throughout the European Union — and a wholesaler repackaged each and every one. This means that, literally, parallel traders open 140 million packets of drugs, remove their contents and repackage them. But these parallel profiteers are in the moneymaking business, not the safety business. And mistakes happen. For example, new labels incorrectly state the dosage strength; the new label says the box contains tablets, but inside are capsules; the expiration date and batch numbers on the medicine boxes don’t match the actual batch and dates of expiration of the medicines inside; and patient information materials are often in the wrong language or are out of date.

This means that drugs purchased from a British pharmacy to an unknowing American consumer could come from European Union nations such as Greece, Latvia, Poland, Malta, Cyprus, or Estonia. In fact, parallel traded medicines account for about 20% (one in five) of all prescriptions filled by British pharmacies. In the EU there is no requirement to record the batch numbers of parallel imported medicines, so if a batch of medicines originally intended for sale in Greece is recalled, tracing where the entire batch has gone (for example, from Athens to London through Canada to Indianapolis) is impossible. Caveat Emptor is bad health care practice and even worse health care policy. Safety cannot be compromised, even if the truth is inconvenient.

Surprised about the path of counterfeit Avastin?  You shouldn’t be. There is ample evidence linking parallel importation with the growing threat of counterfeits. In August 2004 counterfeit medicines were found in the legitimate British supply chain after a patient complained of a crumbling tablet. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) issued an immediate alert. Only days later, the MHRA had to issue another alert after a different counterfeit medicine was found in Great Britain’s legitimate supply chain. Pharmaceutish Weekblad, a respected pharmacy journal in the Netherlands, recently reported that counterfeit medicines found in the Netherlands at the end of last year entered the legitimate supply chain through parallel importers. Stubborn facts.

Danish parallel trader, CareMed, said it was the link in the journey of fake Avastin from Switzerland to Britain. The fake has been traced back as far as Egypt before entering a complex supply chain that ended in California. (Roche does not make Avastin in Egypt.)

CareMed has admitted to sourcing the drug from fully licensed Swiss distributor Hadicon, and the 167 vials of Avastin 400mg were sold from a transit warehouse in Switzerland directly to a transit warehouse in Britain.

"In fact under our distribution license -- for patient safety reasons -- as a distributor, we are not even entitled to open the packages and check that, for example, batch numbers of the vials correspond to the batch numbers of the packages."

CareMed sold the drugs to a "highly valued and experienced customer" in Britain, which informed it at the end of November that the batch numbers on the vials did not match the packages.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 8-10% of the global medicine supply chain is counterfeit — rising to 25% or higher in some countries. The largest counterfeit market with close proximity to the EU free trade zone is Russia, where the generally accepted estimate is that 12% of drugs are counterfeit. Now that the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have joined the European Union, WHO has warned that an increase in the risks of counterfeits entering the EU supply chain is “obvious.”

Facts are stubborn things.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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