Sanofi-Aventis has officially opened a laboratory which the French drugmaker says is the first initiative of its type to be dedicated to analyse counterfeit medicines.

Sanofi’s Central Anti-Counterfeit Laboratory, which began operating in January, has been officially inaugurated at the firm’s Tours pharmaceutical plant, and is already playing a key role in combating the problem,according to chairman Jean-Francois Dehecq. Eight staff are examining suspicious packaging and leaflets as well as conducting tests on suspect samples of commonly counterfeited Sanofi products, notably the company’s blockbuster bloodthinner Plavix (clopidogrel). In 2007, more than 2.5 million doses of counterfeited Sanofi products were discovered throughout the world.

Sanofi noted that the CACL is a useful tool at the disposal of the regulatory agencies, “the police and the customs as well, of course, as the courts in France and in any other country involved” in stopping the counterfeiters. Mr Dehecq told PharmaTimes World News that the cost of setting up the laboratory involved an investment of a few million euros but the cost of the venture should not be mentioned in monetary terms. Its value comes from combating this curse of counterfeit drugs which represents a major threat to public health as well as being illegal.

Mr Dehecq is advocating a zero-tolerance policy, saying that “we have for too long a time under-estimated the problem of drug counterfeiting”. He added that “what used to be a cottage industry is today a fully-fledged industrial process" and “given the urgency of the situation, we have to be intransigent”.

Specifically, he said there was a need to enhance the efficacy of international police enquiries, update the punishments dished out which are “currently insufficiently dissuasive and regulating drug distribution networks, especially those which can be exploited to promote counterfeit drugs".

Nathalie Tallet, who is heading up the CACL, told PharmaTimes World News that out of 300 suspicious products the laboratory has received from hospitals, sales representatives, patients, the police or customs, 30% have proved to be counterfeit. Also Sanofi has bought thousands of drugs anonymously in pharmacies or on the Internet and is hoping to analyse 11,000 products by the end of the year. By Kevin Grogan in Tours