Wanted: Pharma super cops

An estimated 20,000 shipments of fake drugs arrive in Switzerland every year Keystone

Do you have experience in tackling cybercrime, extremism, extortion, blackmail and bribery? If yes, the Swiss pharma industry might be interested to hear from you. 

This content was published on March 2, 2017 - 11:00

They’re not looking for a cyber security specialist, bodyguard or counter terror expert but someone who can help them fight against the scourge of counterfeit medicine. Swiss pharma giant Novartis is looking for an Intelligence Analyst(PDF) as well as a China-based Global Security Regional Head(PDF) to “investigate pharmaceutical crime and create the conditions to bring counterfeiters and illegal traders to justice” among other things. 

Other big Swiss pharma companies like Roche are also on the lookout for crime busters with advertisements for an Investigator(PDF) and Internal Investigations Manage(PDF)r charged with “leading and performing fraud and forensic investigations”. 

Both Novartis and Roche declined to talk to about their anti-counterfeit operations, presumably for security reasons. However, the job ads show that the problem exists and it is not going away soon. The US-based Pharmaceutical Security Institute that compiles crimes reported by pharma companies, law enforcement officials, health ministries and the media stated that there had been an over 25% increase in incidents in 2015 compared to the year before.

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“We have seen better reporting in recent years from law enforcement authorities, thanks to training and awareness campaigns,” Thomas Kubic, president and CEO of Pharmaceutical Security InstituteExternal link, told “But the fact that medicines are profitable, easy to transport, and there is little chance of being detected makes them attractive to counterfeiters,”

 According to him, criminal organisations have become skilled at moving counterfeit medicine across countries. A good example of this was the seizure of anti-Hepatitis C medicine Harvoni in Israel in 2016. The pills were believed to originate from India and were imported via a Swiss trading company, according to a statementExternal link by the Swiss medicine regulator Swissmedic. It is worth noting that a standard 12 week treatment of Harvoni in Switzerland costs over CHF50,000 compared to a mere CH500 in India for a generic version called Sovaldi, according to the paper Tages AnzeigerExternal link. It is likely that the huge price difference and the desperation of patients who are not ill enough to qualify for reimbursement by health insurance, made it a tempting target for counterfeiters.

 However, most of the fakes are not expensive drugs like Havroni but well-known affordable medicines like aspirin.

 “They may have small profit margins but that is made up by the large number of patients in need of them,” says Kubic.

 According to him, counterfeiters target medicines whose efficacy cannot immediately be detected such as vaccines. Kubic refers to an investigation in Indonesia that revealed that a group had been counterfeiting vaccines meant for children since 2003. As a result, Indonesia has embarked on a programme to re-inoculate millions of children who had been inadequately protected against basic childhood diseases. 

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Counter measures

 It is in the pharma industry’s best interest to tackle fakes. A reportExternal link by the European Union Intellectual Property Office estimates that companies lose €10 billion in revenues annually due to the presence of counterfeit medicines in the EU market. This amount is equivalent to 4.4% of total sales in the region. Another incentive for companies to invest in anti-counterfeiting measures. 

In 2013, 29 companies raised €4.5 million to support Interpol’s fight against pharma crime over a three-year period. The industry has also incorporated technological innovations into its packaging like track and trace to protect their supply chain and make it difficult to hoodwink consumers. This will soon become compulsory in Europe. The EU’s Falsified Medicines Directive will require all companies selling drugs in the EU zone to incorporate safety features on packaging like a unique identifier and an anti-tampering device by February 9, 2019. The goal is to harmonise standards across the region. The Swiss government has recently initiated the process of modifying the law to this effect in order to make it mandatory to have safety labels on medicine packaging. According to the interior ministry, an estimated 20,000 shipments of fake drugs arrive in the country every year. 

“There is no one tool that can solve alone the problem. You need different elements like product verification, strong regulatory frameworks, deterrent legislations, and raising awareness among the general public," says Cyntia Genolet of the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMAExternal link). 

According to her, stopping counterfeiting is not just the job of pharma companies. She wants fake medicines to be treated as “a crime against patients”. 

“In some countries, if they are caught, counterfeiters pay a small fine or spend little time in jail. This is not proportional to the threat and damage they cause to patients and their family,” she says.

A promising development in this regard is the Medicrime conventionExternal link that entered into force in 2016. It is the first international criminal law instrument that obliges signatory countries to criminalise the manufacture, supply and trafficking of counterfeit medicines. So far, 27 countries have signed the convention of which nine have ratified it. Switzerland is one of the signatories and is expected to ratify it this year pending parliamentary approval. However, only a handful of non-European countries are on board; something that needs to change if it to be effective in tackling a crime that knows no borders.

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