A fake meningitis vaccine was administered to 50,000 people in Niger in 1995. Some 2,500 people then died of the disease. More than a third of anti-malarial drugs in pharmacies in southeast Asia had no active ingredients, according to a 2001 investigation. Chinese officials just announced they broke up a black-market vaccine ring last month.
Bogus medicines promise a lucrative gain for unscrupulous peddlers worldwide. But even if they’re caught, the human health toll has already been taken. A new study proposes to look at the fraudulent phenomenon from a criminology and forensic perspective.
A crime-scene investigation and forensic-science model to combat counterfeit medicine rings is the goal, according to the study in the latest issue of the Journal of Forensic Science and Criminology.
“Our paper provides real-world application of well-respected criminology theory, which is typically unconventional for public health professionals,” said John Spink, lead author, from Michigan State University.
Proactive surveillance and enforcement are key. The “crime-triangle” theory – looking at victim, criminal, and opportunity – is a way to predict the development of fraud, said Spink.
“The goal is to reduce the size of the triangle; increasing the understanding of how and why fraudsters circumvent laws, audits and certifications helps achieve that goal,” he said.
Nigeria served as the case study. A nation that was once plagued by bogus drugs took on a multi-layered initiative from 2001 through 2012 to beat back the counterfeit market, even as the country’s economy continued to grow. A raid in 2004 found 3,000 unregistered outlets for medicines – and another one in 2008 seized 80 truckloads of fake drugs.
A handheld Raman Spectroscopy scanner called Truscan – built by Thermo Fisher Scientific – began field trials in 2009, and ably authenticated the chemical compounds of drugs, they found. Consumer serialized codes underneath scratch-off labels also helped provide security. The country also enacted a dozen laws to assist law enforcement and prosecutors.
The rate of counterfeits in Nigeria stood at 67 percent in 2001 – but had plunged to under 10 percent due to the efforts, which also included more regulation of the supply chain and consumer awareness campaigns.
“Forensic Science and Criminology theory can provide a new way of framing or thinking about this complex public health issue,” the authors conclude.
But the “fixes” are never permanent, Spink warns. Continued vigilance is key.
“To provide an anecdote: preventing counterfeiting is more akin to managing a chronic disease such as diabetes rather than the one-time fix of an acute incident such as a broken leg,” writes Spink.
Filed Under: Drug Discovery