There is now clear evidence that drug counterfeiters are switching their operations from trading small quantities of weaker or totally fake products on the internet to targeting wholesalers who supply the UK National Health Service, the government drug safety agency has warned.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is currently investigating 25 cases of medicine counterfeiting, which is twice the number it had to deal with five years ago, the agency’s head of intelligence, Naeem Ahmed, has said. Also, in the last two years, there have been five cases of fake drugs working their way through the NHS supply chain and into high street pharmacies. These were the first such cases detected since 1994.

The trade is growing due to demand for top-selling “blockbuster” medications and lifestyle drugs, such as those to treat obesity or erectile dysfunction. It is possible for counterfeiters to buy the active ingredients for these products “incredibly cheaply” from countries such as China and India, said Mr Ahmed.

Counterfeiters "more confident"

“In the past couple of years the counterfeiters have become more confident. They have realised the profits to be made,” he noted. “If you trade over the Internet, the risk of detection is low but you only sell a pack here and a pack there. If you penetrate the supply chain there is a higher risk but you can make a lot of money.”

Moreover, this trade involves lower risks and higher profits than the smuggling of hard drugs, says the MHRA.

The counterfeiters’ new interest in the NHS supply system poses a direct risk to the public, Mr Ahmed warned. “If someone chooses to buy their drugs over the Internet, then it is a case of ‘buyer beware.’ We try to discourage that. But if a patient has gone through the NHS and been prescribed drugs, the last thing we want is for them to be put at risk,” he said.

So far, the counterfeit ingredients which have infiltrated the NHS supply chain have been only slightly weaker versions of the genuine drug, containing its active ingredient at levels only marginally below the required amount. However, Mr Ahmed warned that harm done by such products could be missed because doctors would not be looking for it.

The MHRA has been developing an anti-counterfeiting strategy over the last three years and is set to publish it shortly, the agency said. By Lynne Taylor