Spotlight on medical IP theft and prevention: fake drugs can be life-threatening

Spotlight on medical IP theft and prevention: fake drugs can be life-threatening

Summary: Knock-off drugs are being developed by criminals and sold to unsuspecting people across the world. It's causing illness and death.

TOPICS: Health

Most software engineers are particularly familiar with issues of intellectual property (IP) theft, because software has been pirated since the very earliest days. The general public became particularly aware of IP theft in the days of Napster, although the methods used by the RIAA and MPAA to counter illegal music sharing were often ill-advised and over the top.

What you may not be aware of is the level of intellectual property theft that exists in the world of medicine. It's not just that knowledge is stolen. Rather, the big risk is that knock-off drugs are being developed by criminals and sold to unsuspecting people across the world. It's causing illness and death.

Imagine, for example, that your dad needs to take an expensive heart drug every day. Failure to comply with the dosage instructions could be dangerous or even fatal. Now, imagine that instead of buying the medicine at the local pharmacy, he ordered it -- for one-tenth the price -- from an online retailer.

Now, imagine that the pills he got look just like what he's been taking. But instead of life-saving drug, the pills are filled with either just a filler or -- as is often the case -- carcinogenic compounds. Now, your dad's life is at risk, and his health is a ticking time bomb. Worse, if he experiences a health issue, his doctor probably won't realize that he's been off his meds.

The counterfeit drug makes it harder to diagnose what's going wrong.

This is the fight that both the U.S. government and industry have been undertaking. Below are three videos. The first two make up the White House Forum on Intellectual Property Theft. They're long, but Attorney General Eric Holder's discussion about drug counterfeiting in the first half hour or so is unnerving.

Following those two videos is a short IBM promotional piece about how IT tech can be used to follow a pill, and make sure what you're taking is actually what your doctor wants you to take.

This is fascinating and disturbing stuff, but well worth learning about. After all, your health could be at risk.

Have you ever been tempted to buy cheap drugs on the Internet? TalkBack below and let us know what you think.


Topic: Health


Denise Amrich is a Registered Nurse, the health care advisor for the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute, and a mentor for the Virtual Campus at Florida's Brevard Community College.

Nothing in this article is meant to be a substitute for medical advice, and shouldn't be considered as such. If you are in need of medical help, please see your doctor.

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  • If someone dies...

    from these, I wonder if they can then be charged with premeditated murder, as I believe they should be, considering they knew what they were doing in advance.
  • What A Load Of Nonsense

    Congratulations on conflating two entirely different issues: generic/unlicensed copies of patented drugs, and fake drugs that don’t work at all. The latter are dangerous, even life-threatening, whereas the former are quite the opposite, they can save the lives of people who are too poor to pay the high patent licence fees.

    We saw this kind of deliberate, insidious confusion during the ACTA negotiation process, and now it appears the same nonsense is being repeated with TPP: the health threat from fake drugs being used as a smokescreen to tighten the patent ratchet and prevent poorer countries from benefiting their own citizens by bypassing onerous drug patents.

    So whose side are you on, Ms Amrich? Do you care about the health of your patients, or are you here to promote the interests of the drug companies? Please make it clear where you stand. Show some understanding of the issues, rather than mindlessly mouthing whatever propaganda you may have been fed.
    • Agreed, and an example

      @ldo17, while I wouldn't be so aggressive with Ms. Amrich, you do have a very valid point and I congratulate you for raising it. Internet drug commerce, counterfeit drugs (which can happen domestically in any country), genuine medication but with lax quality control and unreliable dosages (ditto), and IP/patent violations are entirely different issues, though all are serious problems to some degree.

      However, when it comes to real IP and patent problems in this area, it's hard to draw precise lines in many cases. For example, Brazil has an aggressive and highly successful publicly funded strategy against HIV, which includes massive prevention and awareness campaigns, and the distribution of very expensive antiviral drugs for free to seropositive patients treated at public reference hospitals and clinics.

      The Brazilian government negotiates the supply with the multinational pharmaceutical companies that sell the drugs, but if an agreement cannot be reached, there are legal instruments to break the drug's patent. The company can protest all it wants, but that's perfectly legal in Brazil, though only used as an extreme resort and on very rare occasions - normally, an agreement is reached and the company that owns the patent is paid, albeit much less than what it wanted. It usually just means stretching its R&D investment recovery time a little loinger, after all.

      Otherwise, when an agreement cannot be reached, the Brazilian government will declare the patent void in the public interest and will produce and distribute the drug on its own. If the country cannot produce the active principle of the drug in question, it usually imports it from India, which has a surprisingly developed pharmaceutical industry and can produce and sell virtually anything in this field, with top quality and reliability. One of a number of foundations and institutes of the Brazilian government then uses the active principle to produce the pills or whatever is the final form.

      This policy has caused a lot of diplomatic tensions between Brazil and the US, Germany, France, Switzerland and the UK, where most of the big pharmaceutical corporations are headquartered, and the subject is always brought up whenever there are high-level meetings between the Brazilian government and those of said countries. Nevertheless, the policy stands unshaken. India aggressively defends its pharmaceutical industry as well. See, the BRICs count not just in numbers, but also in *what* they do.

      In the end, this is just another example of how, in a globalized economy, old structures, economic and legal models are proving to be inadequate and are being shaken by new realities. Lots of things are in urgent need of being reformulated and reinvented, and the patent and IP systems are two of them. But who will be the first to start?
  • Uhm... kind of one sided and contrived...

    Yes, counterfeit drugs that are made by criminals are bad (is there anything made by criminals that one would expect to be good?).. so that almost seems unnecessary to say.

    However, your post tacitly implies that ALL (or at least a lot) of the drugs for sale on the Internet are (a) counterfeit and/or (b) fakes made by criminals.

    Two points to this:

    Generics are in most cases *exactly* the same drug or modernised versions of the same drugs sold by major pharma at much higher prices. Most generics are based on *expired* patents and aren't 'illegal' or 'made by criminals'. I think it would have done a much better service to the readers here to offer suggestions on how to determine which drugs are legit generics and which aren't.

    Many countries (other than the US) have price controls on all drugs and regulations on how marketing for drugs can happen. For example, it's pretty much illegal here in Canada to advertise a drug as a treatment for a specific illness because it causes patients to come in and demand *specfic* drugs when they may be inappropriate or unnecessarily expensive when equivalents exist. This keeps the cost of medical services down in those countries. What a lot of internet pharma dealers do is hire a doctor to 'write a prescription' in those countries, then ship the perfectly legitimate drugs to the US with enough markup to turn a profit while still undercutting US pharma significantly.

    Canada's food and drug regulation department is just as competent as their US equivalents. Our drugs are as highly regulated and tested as yours, if not moreso. Trying to argue that drugs not made in the US are somehow suspect solely for that reason is seriously duplicious.

    For the record, this is the one thing so far that may actually be illegal - not because of fraud or any such thing, but because most pharmas have licensing regulations that try to prevent this exact thing. So it's not a safety or IP issue - it's an attempt to regulate trade.

    Are people selling counterfeit, ersatz or even outright fake drugs made by criminals on the internet? I would be surprised if that's NOT the case. Is this the majority or even a significant fraction of the drugs sold on the Internet? I doubt it - but this article doesn't really help clarify that question at all.
    The Werewolf!
  • generic drugs in Mexico

    Generally because of the government's regulations, all drugs here in Mexico are cheaper than in the US. Generic drugs are plentiful and, depending on where bought, are quite cheap. A national chain called Similares has the lowest cost for generic drugs, far lower that one might find in other Farmacias.
    Though there are restrictions on a few types of drugs, so that they need a prescription to be bought, most of them are sold over the counter. I could not afford the drugs I need to take were I having to pay the prices in the US. Even more there are a number of nsaids that can be bought here but need script to buy in the US, and these are old drugs having been used for decades and still restricted in the states. What a waste of time and money for some simple materials that can relieve pain. Instead large amounts of advertising dollars are spent to try to get people to buy prescription nsaids , which are no better than the old tried and true, and the old ones are not like Vioxx, they do not cause death.
    One does note, the cost of health care in the US is the highest in the world and far from the top in results.