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The fight against counterfeit drugs in Africa as part of Corporate Social Investment

5th February 2013


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Within the global pharmaceutical industry, represented by large corporate citizens, the quest to improve healthcare in impoverished communities is being tackled by means of a multi-pronged approach. For example, their corporate social investment strategies aim to:

• improve access to safe and effective medication worldwide
• foster the growth of intellectual property and research and development
•  develop business models that allow better access to medication for developing nations
• increase anti-counterfeiting measures
• provide product donations and philanthropy


When examining the negative impact on community health of counterfeit drugs, for example, the contributions by pharmaceutical companies in anti-counterfeiting are proving increasingly important.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), counterfeit medicines have presented a growing global threat for the last twenty years.  Today, it is estimated that the global counterfeit medicine industry is worth $75bn a year, and the International Police Organization Interpol estimates that up to 30% of all medicines in Africa are either counterfeit or of inferior quality.  As healthcare and pharmaceutical organizations struggle to improve the care provided to impoverished communities around the world, ensuring product quality and safety has become a priority.

Counterfeit medication is distinguishable from inferior medication, in that inferior medicine is obtained from legitimate sources but is substandard due to manufacturing problems.  Counterfeit medicine on the other hand, is classified as spurious/falsely-labelled/falsified/counterfeit (SFFC), with respect to both its content and/or origin.  It is deliberately and fraudulently manufactured and distributed.  All types of medicines have been counterfeited, including both generic and branded medicines, and ranging from treatments for everyday ailments to life-threatening diseases.  Most commonly, counterfeit medicines include antibiotics, antimalarials, hormones and steroids, and increasingly also include anticancer and antiviral drugs.


In Africa, SFFC medicines are sold on the streets in open air markets, often alongside fruit and vegetables.   People seeking medication are often unable to afford medicines from regulated outlets and look for cheaper alternatives elsewhere.  In some rural areas access to medication is limited, and often supply does not meet demand, resulting in a market for unregulated medicine.

Treatment of illnesses using SFFC medicines is often entirely ineffective and can, in extreme cases, lead to death.  The content of SFFC medications is unreliable and can range from ineffective, weakened compositions, to mixtures of harmful toxic substances.  Often counterfeit medicines are very difficult to detect, so they can end up being sold unwittingly through legitimate channels.

One of the most effective ways of assisting in the fight against counterfeit drugs is to enable authorities to detect SFFC medications cheaply and easily.   In an initiative by the Global Pharma Health Fund, which is funded by Merck, the chemical and life sciences company, mobile compact laboratories have been developed that can be used to detect counterfeit medicines. These “Minilabs” can test medicines quickly and cost-effectively and can identify 57 well-known active ingredients, specifically those most often found in medications for treating infectious diseases. 

These Minilabs, which were recently donated by the Global Pharma Health Fund to the Zambian and Tanzanian governments, are unique in that they are mobile and can test medicines simply and reliably while onsite, providing authorities in often impoverished and remote locations with a valuable tool in the fight against counterfeit medicines. 

Hopefully such initiatives, in addition to other approaches being taken within the corporate social investment frameworks, will assist greatly in providing developing countries with safer and more readily available medications.

Written by Carla Moerdyk - candidate attorney, Patent Department, Adams & Adams
Verified by - Alexis Apostolidis, partner, Patent Department, Adams & Adams


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