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Using science to battle fake drugs

Flickr, by Rodrigo Senna

I’ve written before about some of the Seattle folks playing a critical role in the battle against counterfeit medications and the potential for harm “fake drugs” can cause, especially in low-income countries.

It is a much bigger problem than most people realize and not at all simple to fix.

While some estimate that maybe one percent of the medications sold in the U.S. are fake or adulterated, experts say as many as one-third of all medications in the developing world could be counterfeits.

This poses a deadly risk to individuals as well as to all of humanity as this could undermine efforts to contain many infectious diseases globally.

The Science and Development Network today published an excellent series of articles examining the use of science and technology in this effort. Here’s a synopsis of a few of them:

Editorial Tackling Fake Drugs Needs Technology and Collaboration:

High-tech Fighting fake drugs with high-tech solutions

Risk to global health Tackle Counterfeits to Fight Drug-Resistant Malaria

Counterfeit drugs Facts and Figures

Editorial Counterfeit confusion diverts action from drug quality

That last editorial is worth a close look, in that it contends many of the efforts being made to combat counterfeit drugs “have nothing to do with concerns about drug quality.” The author, Leena Menghaney, India Manager for Médecins Sans Frontières’ Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, says:


Major US and European pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in limiting competition from generic drugs, and are using increased enforcement of intellectual property laws as a tool to clamp down on the legitimate trade in high-quality generic medicines between developing countries.

Confusion around the term ‘counterfeit’ is feeding into this, diverting resources from the real problem of drug quality.

Sarah Boseley at The Guardian also recently reported on Oxfam’s concern that doing this simply as a means to protect drug company interests could actually hurt poor people perhaps as much as the fake drugs.

Everyone agrees that the problem of fake drugs is massive and growing. But there appears to be division over how best to combat the threat.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.