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Manufacture Small Molecules, Business Practice, Quality & Compliance, Standards & Regulation

Bang the Drum

A recent study claims that up to 60 percent of search engine results for the antibiotic Bactrim (trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole) led to dubious websites and potentially counterfeit medicines (1). Even without the study, people connected to the pharma industry are well aware of the countless websites selling what should be prescription-only medicines. Both small molecule drugs and biologics are affected, but the former typically come in  convenient tablet form, making them easier to replicate and more accessible to consumers.

Pharma companies have been raising awareness of the issue for years. As just one example, Sanofi trained around 20,000 people in 2014 as part of its commitment to combat counterfeit medicines. The company also trained 7,300 public agents (2). And though the costs of training were not given, the number of people involved suggest the outlay was significant. At a time when drug pricing is firmly in the spotlight, it is unfortunate that the onus is on pharma companies when it comes to ensuring that patients are aware of the real dangers of counterfeit medicines. 

Pharma’s commitment to countering counterfeiting is partially self-serving (even illegal competition is competition), but the focus is firmly on safety. Pfizer has a lab dedicated to analyzing counterfeit medicines, which has previously discovered brick dust, boric acid, and even floor polish in tablets. And though track and trace initiatives have been launched to help prevent counterfeits from reaching legitimate pharmacies and hospitals, online counterfeit medicines are more difficult to tackle, with consumer behavior playing a key role. Google has reportedly said that it will not take action in terms of de-indexing URLs dedicated to selling counterfeit products, including medicines (3). And until search engines are willing (or forced) to step up, pharma must continue to beat the drum with awareness campaigns. Young people, for whom online shopping is second nature, are an especially important target group, and so Pfizer is reportedly launching a new campaign in the UK – “Don’t be catfished by counterfeit medicines” – to target students.

What else can – or should – pharma companies be doing? And which other stakeholders could help foot the bill when it comes to awareness campaigns that benefit public safety? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject ([email protected]).

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  1. European Pharmaceutical Review, “Sixty percent of search engine results for medicines yield counterfeit drugs,” (2019). Available at: Last accessed October 25, 2019. 
  2. Sanofi, “Fighting Counterfeit Medicines,” (2017). Available at: Last accessed October 25, 2019. 
  3. Incopro, “How and why search engines must take responsibility for tackling counterfeiters,” (2019). Available at: Last accessed October 25, 2019.
About the Author
Stephanie Vine

Making great scientific magazines isn’t just about delivering knowledge and high quality content; it’s also about packaging these in the right words to ensure that someone is truly inspired by a topic. My passion is ensuring that our authors’ expertise is presented as a seamless and enjoyable reading experience, whether in print, in digital or on social media. I’ve spent fourteen years writing and editing features for scientific and manufacturing publications, and in making this content engaging and accessible without sacrificing its scientific integrity. There is nothing better than a magazine with great content that feels great to read.

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