62% of medicines purchased on-line are fake or substandard, and these include drugs used in the treatment of serious conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, neurological disorders and mental health conditions, according to new research presented this month at the Global Forum on Pharmaceutical AntiCounterfeiting in Washington, DC.

For the study, researchers at the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines (EAASM) ordered a range of commonly-purchased prescription drugs on-line. Every one was delivered without requiring the sight of a prescription, which is illegal, and only 38% of those received were found to be genuine branded medicines. Of these, 16% were illegal non-European Union (EU) imports, and 33% did not have accompanying Patient Information Leaflets (PILs), which is also illegal.

Moreover the study, which is entitled The Counterfeiting Superhighway, reports that: 95.6% of the on-line pharmacies researched are operating illegally; 94% of websites do not have a named, verifiable pharmacist; over 90% of websites supply prescription-only medicines without a prescription; and 86% of on-line “pharmacy approval” stamps are fake.

Dangers of “bonus” pills

The researchers say they were particularly shocked to find that Sanofi-aventis/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s life-saving cardiovascular medicine Plavix (clopidogrel) was on a number of occasions supplied with free packs of Pfizer’s Viagra (sildenafil), or products purporting to be Viagra. Anyone who is taking medicines for a serious heart condition should be under close medical supervision, especially when taking a cocktail of drugs for other conditions, including erectile dysfunction, they say.

"Far from rewarding consumers with ‘bonus pills,’ this practice shows that these unscrupulous, on-line drug traders appear willing to potentially risk the health and well-being of their consumers,” added Dr Ian Banks, president of the European Men’s Health Forum.

Meantime, the industry’s Pharmaceutical Security Institute reports that 2007 saw a 24% increase in seizures of counterfeit drugs, with 403 different prescription medicines worth around $3 billion being confiscated in 99 countries.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 10% of drugs sold worldwide are counterfeit, and that in certain countries this percentage could be over 50%. The US Center for Medicines in the Public Interest (CMPI) forecasts that the trade will be worth $75 billion worldwide by 2010, an increase of more than 90% on 2005’s figure.

Last week, the head of the European Medicines Agency (EMEA), Thomas Lonngren, told reporters in London that closer working between regulators in the USA, Europe and elsewhere in the world to combat the problem of contaminated medicines, such as the recent discoveries of tainted supplies of the blood-thinner heparin, could also help to protect patients from counterfeit drugs.