Up to 81% of all counterfeit drugs seized by European officials during 2005-7 originated from China or India, but a wholesale ban on products from these nations would be counterproductive because they also produce many good-quality, low-cost generic drugs, says a leading free-market commentator.

African countries must be able to assess which producers and distributors are responsible for the counterfeit trade and impose selective embargoes on them, says Roger Bate of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for Public Policy Research, a free-market think tank. Naming and shaming such producers will give India's federal government, which is trying to combat fake drugs, more political ammunition to crack down on bad firms and their state-level sponsors, he adds.

A good model for such initiatives is Nigeria, where officials reported nearly a decade ago that more than 50% of drugs in the country were fake or adulterated. Since then, a rigorous anticounterfeiting campaign, with stiffer penalties and a ban on several dozen Chinese and Indian companies has reduced this share to 10%-16%.

Political will is necessary to enforce or change laws, says Dr Bate, noting that in many places it is still not a criminal offence to fake life-saving drugs. “And while some African countries often complain about fake imports, they also fail to scrutinise their own producers,” he says, adding: “such double standards must cease.”

But quality assessment is the first step in the process, and here Nigeria is also leading the way, by field-testing the use of lightweight, battery-powered handheld spectrometers which can identify substandard products in under 10 seconds. These devices are easy to use, and while they cannot replace more precise laboratory techniques, their use can help drug regulatory authorities screen out many bad products and provide enough evidence to launch more comprehensive investigations, says Dr Bate.

Spectrometers are expensive, but if demand for them increases their costs will fall, he says, and suggests that aid agencies could consider kick-starting the process by purchasing some for use by African nations.

Dr Bate has also called on the Chinese government to increase its penalties for counterfeiters, which are currently as low as 100-4,000 yuan. The country’s legal mechanism for prosecuting counterfeiters needs restructuring, its intellectual property regime must be tightened and regulators should be given the necessary resources and authority to able to independently investigate reported cases of counterfeiting – with or without the company’s cooperation, he says.

However, he also notes the significance of the counterfeiting industry for China’s economy, with as many as five million of the country’s citizens estimated to be in the business of fake drugs and patent and trademark infringements. Dr Bate quotes Li Guorong, general manager of the China United Intellectual Property Protection Center, as warning that radical action against counterfeiters “would crash the economy overnight” and even “destabilize a government where counterfeit factories and warehouses are often owned by local military and political grandees."