At first glance, it looked like a normal abandoned warehouse on the edge of Moscow: crumbling walls, dripping pipes and the odd rat scuttling across the floor. In fact, the run-down building was still in useЧas an illegal distribution centre for fake medicines being sent to pharmacies and hospitals all over Russia.
The operationЧbusted earlier this year by police and inspectors from the Russian Federal Agency for Monitoring Health and Social Development, or RoszdravnadzorЧwas a sharp reminder of the scale of drug counterfeiting in Russia.
Stored at the warehouse were an estimated US$2 million worth of copies of popular, mostly foreign drugs such as vinpocetine (Cavinton), a drug used for the treatment of various cerebral insufficiency conditions, the cold remedy TeraFlu and the antibacterial drug cotrimoxazole (Biseptol).
Inspectors discovered about 600 boxes of the fake CavintonЧmade in its genuine form by the Hungarian company Gedeon RichterЧhad been delivered from the warehouse to the main hospital of Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. УThank God, the medicine was replaced with a neutral substance that had no effect on vital functionsФ, Boris Merkeshkin, the hospital's chief doctor told reporters from state television after the fraud was exposed. УIf not, it would have been a tragedy.Ф
Worldwide, copycat medicines are on the increase. The Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest in the USA predicts that counterfeit drug sales will reach $75 billion globally in 2010, an increase of more than 90% from 2005.
Counterfeit drug production is worth an estimated $300 million per year in Russia and although the government claims counterfeiting is on the decrease, it admits that up to 10% of medicines are still faked.
Industry groups have praised recent steps by Roszdravnadzor to tackle the problem but claim new initiatives to control the trade could be ineffective.
One major concern is the extent to which production of fake medicines is so closely meshed with legitimate production. Corruption is huge and many pharmaceutical companies have powerful stooges within Russia's all powerful bureaucracy.
The medicines found at the abandoned Moscow warehouse turned out to be owned by a company whose founder was Vladimir Bryntsalov, a member of parliament and billionaire pharmaceuticals magnate who once ran for president. A police investigation started in April is ongoing.
About 70% of fake drugs in circulation in Russia are produced inside the country, and an estimated 70% of them are copies of foreign medications.
Whereas a decade ago many fakes were made in basements and small backroom enterprises, most are now coming from legitimate factories that make copies on the side. A Уnight shiftФ is run to produce extra quantities of a certified drug that does not pass through quality control, or sophisticated copies of well-known drugs are produced, often with reduced levels of expensive active ingredients. These fakes can be exact copies or put in packaging where only a letter or two is altered on the name.
УI wouldn't call them Сhigh-qualityТ but the trend is certainly toward high craftsmanship in counterfeitsФ, says Gennady Shirshov, executive director of the Union of Professional Pharmaceutical Organisations (SPFO), an industry body representing major wholesalers, pharmacy chains, and foreign and local manufacturers.
Shirshov praises the government for several high-profile raids this year saying the biggest manufacturers of fakes have been forced to stop. But he fears that smaller producers making lower-quality counterfeits may yet move in to fill the void. Law enforcement bodies are under-resourced and there is little deterrent. УThe legislation is inadequate. It's a civil liability, not a criminal one [for producing counterfeits] and the fines are negligibleФ, he says.
While there are no statistics on the harm caused to patients by fake drugs, it is generally thought that the good quality of most of them has prevented deaths. However, that has led to complacency on the part of some officials. УWe have had people in the regional governments even saying about improper medicines, Сwhat's wrong with that, the quality is super and we're going to buy itТ,Ф says Shirshov. УAnd that's just awful.Ф
The fear is that while accurate fakes are rarely harmful, those that are simply placebos made from chalk and water could present a danger if they prevent a patient receiving a vital course of drugs. About 45% of counterfeits in Russia are thought to be medicines for serious cardiovascular or gastrointestinal illnesses.
What concerns the pharmaceuticals industry, police, and regulatory bodies now is how to bring the illegal trade to its knees. Ramil Khabriev, head of Roszdravnadzor, says rapid progress is being made and denies a recent report in The New York Times which suggested that counterfeit production in Russia was on the rise. УI can say for certain that is not trueФ, he told The Lancet in an interview at his office in Moscow. УThe number of inspections has increased while at the same time the quantity of counterfeits being found has decreased.Ф
All drugs entering the country are certified and a new law introduced in June made it possible to take distributors and pharmaciesЧwhich are often in on the sale of counterfeitsЧto arbitration court and annul their licences, he says.
This year, Khabriev clashed with foreign pharmaceuticals manufacturers over plans for a new law that would oblige them to register a partner company in Russia.
His agency wanted to make the supply chain more transparent by obliging international companies to verify their imports inside Russia, he says. At present distributors often cannot confirm the exact origin of their products. УWe do not have limitations on import of any medicine if it has the licence of a distributorЧeven from offshore zonesФ, he says. УIf there was a licence for production on the territory of the Russian Federation, we would be able to ask [the companies] to confirm if it is their medicine being imported at this point in time or not.Ф
But the Moscow-based industry group, the Association of International Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (AIPM), fought hard against the proposal. УThe problem was that they wanted to insist at the same time that the Russian legal entity would also be the owner of the intellectual property being registered, which means that our companies would have to transfer ownership of their blockbuster medicines to a Russian legal entityФ, explains executive director, Sergei Boboshko. УThe fact that it's Russian is not the point. What happens if tomorrow Korea says we want to do the same thingЧwho's going to own that intellectual property?Ф
Boboshko, whose organisation speaks for some 45 foreign companies including giants like Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca, stresses that Roszdravnadzor backed down from the demand to transfer intellectual rights after pressure from officials at the ministry of economic development and trade who recognised it was wrongheaded. УWe are very grateful to the authorities for recognising our concerns and deciding this requirement is no longer necessaryФ, he says.
Khabriev is not so content. He believes foreign companies are lobbying against the law because they simply wanted to avoid extra work and expense.
Foreign manufacturers bridle at the suggestion that they would hinder the exposure of counterfeit drugs. УWhy would we do that?Ф says one industry source. УBesides patients, we're the first people to suffer.Ф Individual companies are often reluctant to discuss the topic of fakes for fear of creating adverse publicity that would put shoppers off their products. But there is genuine concernЧboth for hoodwinked patients and lost profits.
At the premises of Intertech Corporation in Moscow, Shurshov's union is piloting an analyser using near infrared technologyЧcommon elsewhere in EuropeЧthat can be used to identify counterfeit drugs and packaging within minutes.
The suitcase-sized analyser, which is linked to a desktop computer, has a pistol-shaped probe to test liquids, powders, and receptacles for scanning ampoules and pills. УLook at these clustersФ, says Georgy, the spectograph operator, pointing to two groups of red dots as he tests a Biseptol tablet. УWe can see right away that its fake.Ф
SPFO wants to set up a database of profiles of legitimate medicines to compare with suspected copycats. Roszdravnadzor, meanwhile, is considering introducing a system of coded labels to identify legitimate drugs. Boboshko of AIPM is convinced that will not help. УThere are no stamps, no holograms, no secret passwords, or anything that's going to eradicate this problemФ, he says. УWhat you should put your money on is political will, enforcement and legislation.Ф