The European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have published a report on the trade of counterfeit pharmaceutical products worldwide.

Said report, based on the analysis carried out in 2019 but focussing on the pharmaceutical sector, confirmed that the imports of counterfeit and pirated products rose to 509,000 million dollars in 2016, accounting for around 3.3% of global trade.

Counterfeit medicines: a serious threat amid the COVID-19 pandemic  

In 2016, the international trade in counterfeit pharmaceuticals reached 4,400 million dollars, accounting for 0.84% of the world trade in pharmaceutical products.

Counterfeits imply not only possible economic damages for this sector, but also significant health threats, since fake medicines are often not properly formulated and may contain dangerous ingredients.

This report, covering the period from 2014 to 2016, proves that the counterfeits seized included medicines for serious diseases, such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and cancer. These also included antibiotics, lifestyle-related treatments, anaesthetics, diabetes treatment drugs and central nervous system medications.

India remains the main provenance economy of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, being the origin of 53% of the total seized value of counterfeit pharmaceutical products and medicines worldwide in 2016. India was closely followed by China (30%) and the United Arab Emirates (4%).

Among the countries most affected by the trade of counterfeit pharmaceutical products are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. In the specific case of pharmaceutical products sent to the European Union, India continues to be the main provenance economy, being the origin of 47% of the total value of pharmaceutical products and medicines seized by EU customs authorities, followed by China with 37%.

In the period from 2014 to 2016, mail, postal services and courier services were the main modes of transport for pharmaceutical products and fake medicines exported to EU economies, both in terms of their value and their volume.

Among the factors que encouraging the sale of counterfeit pharmaceutical products and medicines are its profitability, sometimes with a profit margin of 7.900%; the low risk of detection, as customs officials do not always have access to simple field tests that would help them to triage suspect products; the low risk of prosecution, since most counterfeits are only detected when they reach retailers or patients and it is frequently difficult to trace them back through complex supply chains, or to prove where criminal activity occurred; and weak penalties, with average incarceration periods of 6 years for trademark infringement worldwide.

In relation to the impact of counterfeit medicines, the report shows the serious harm the use of falsified medicines can cause.

The World Health Organization, one of the sources consulted, indicated that that fake, substandard anti-malarial medication might be responsible for the death of 116.000 persons in sub-Saharan Africa.

Counterfeit medicines not only affect private individuals, but also have a direct impact on legitimate producers of pharmaceuticals, these suffering consequences such as loss of revenue, damages caused to their brands and increased costs of security measures.

Governments and industry have been working hand-in-hand to combat counterfeit, substandard and falsified pharmaceuticals. As an example, it should be highlighted that the MEDICRIME Convention, which entered into force in 2016, was developed by the Council of Europe and provides countries with a model legal framework for dealing with falsified medicines and other types of pharmaceutical crime that threaten public health.

This treaty calls for multilateral collaboration across nations, disciplines and sectors, and lays the ground for co-operation with and between international bodies such as INTERPOL, Europol, UNODC, the WCO and WHO, in order to put a stop to this international threat to public health.

In essence, society as a whole always has the compelling, absolute and unavoidable need to fight against the counterfeiting of medicines. Regrettably, the current world crisis resulting from COVID-19 will unveil proof of the serious damages caused by the sale of falsified pharmaceutical products and of the urgent need to end this type of practices at global level.


Author: Alberto Gallo

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