The Golden Age of Fake Drugs by Dr. Gifford Jones

The Economist names Nigeria as the largest market for medicines with more than 70 per cent of the drugs imported from China and India, and the greatest source of phony medication. For instance, in 2011 the World Health Organization discovered that 64 per cent of anti-malaria drugs were fakes.

The blunt fact is that, on a worldwide scale, no one really knows the extent of the problem. It’s due to a combination of inadequate, corrupt inspectors and competition resulting in companies cutting corners.

But standards have been implemented to fight phony drugs. Have you ever wondered about the safety of drugs that you’ve purchased? Are you concerned that they have in the bottle what’s indicated on the package? Or worried that they contain dangerous substances that shouldn’t be present? So, is there any way to be sure we’re getting what we pay for?

My interest started a few years ago when I read a report from the University of California expressing this worry. It stated that the majority of drugs were being imported from China, South Korea and other Asian countries. The report suggested that there were too few inspectors in these countries to ensure the quality of material exported. Nor were there sufficient inspectors in North America to catch ineffective drugs or dangerous impurities.

My interest was further spurred by an article in The Economist listing recent examples of bad medicine. For instance, tainted steroids from a compounding pharmacy (one that mixes its own drugs) near Boston had killed 11 people with fungal meningitis and sickened more than 100 others. In 2012, some vials of Avastin, used to treat cancer patients, contained none of the ingredient needed.

The old-fashioned snake-oil salesman pushed phony drugs for years and most people knew the medicine was of questionable value. But since then, drugs have become powerful and potentially dangerous. Now it seems to be the golden age for questionable medication.

Operation Pangea, an international police organization, has shut down 18 online pill-pushers. To punish counterfeiters and share information, 18 European countries have signed a pact to work together on the matter.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. has opened offices in China, India, Mexico and other countries to combat the problem. But even the FDA admits that it is impossible to police the world. In effect, the problem is a “cheaters’ paradise.”

Companies such as Pfizer have their own investigators. One of Pfizer’s security chiefs tells a story of the “man who was selling fakes to an undercover agent. The man first asked if the agent worked for the FDA, then inquired if he worked for Pfizer.” They are as brazen as asking a police officer if he’ll help you rob the bank.

Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to spend time at Natural Factors manufacturing facilities in Vancouver. It was an eye-opener. For two days, I was able to see raw product arriving in trucks and then follow it through to the finished product rolling off the line. During that time I watched and talked with many workers about hygiene in the plant, how they had to dress and follow rules to ensure against infection.

But what fascinated me most were the extensive measures taken to ensure that mercury, lead and other toxic matter was not in the final product. This process starts by testing samples of shipments long before they reach the plant.

In fact, more than 400 toxic elements and other impurities are routinely screened before and during manufacturing. This is done through their specialized mass spectrometry lab that costs tens of millions of dollars to operate. As a supplement manufacturer, this is no doubt the highest standard in North America and quite possibly the world. As the president of the company remarked: “Most do what they have to do, whereas we strive to do all we can do.”

I’ve stopped worrying about receiving contaminated supplements. If raw material arrives on our shores I have every reason to believe it will be detected by expert security personnel at Natural Factors and other top-rated companies.

As former U.S. president Harry Truman would say: “The buck stops here.”

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