A recent Guardian story, "Counterfeit medicine from Asia threatens lives in Africa," highlighted the dangers posed by fake pharmaceuticals. Shocking data revealed that as much as a third of crucial medicines such as anti-malarials in some African countries are fake. And in a continent where cheap made-in-China imports have become the norm, the origin of the majority of these fakes isn't hard to guess.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement claiming that these drugs are never delivered through formal channels. But even illegally imported drugs pose a diplomatic problem. We've become used to shanzhai (copycat) products in China, but things take a sour turn when the goods aren't just ripoffs or cheap imitations, but outright fakes. And when the culture of fraud extends even into supposedly lifesaving medicines, it's time to get angry.
This isn't to single out China. Indian firms produce a large share of the fake drug market in Africa too. And the West has its own history of using the developing world as a dumping ground for toxic or poorly made products. Yet failing to tackle the issue could cost China dearly.
Chinese lives are at stake too. A crackdown in August saw 2,000 people arrested and $187 million worth of fake drugs confiscated. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Pharmaceutical sales make up the majority of hospitals' incomes in China, yet I was told by one doctor in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province, that up to a quarter of the drugs bought by his hospital, one of the city's largest, were fakes, and another quarter severely substandard. Collusion between doctors and pharmaceutical agents is disturbingly common. One of my friends was chastised by her mother for not going into a cousin's line of work: bribing doctors to buy large consignments of fake or substandard drugs in return for a hefty commission. "He makes so much money!" her mother said admiringly, unthinking of the cost in lives and suffering inflicted by his poisonous business.
But when this toxic trade is exported overseas, it does more than just sow personal misery. It fundamentally undermines Beijing's efforts at building a positive international image.
China already has a persistent image problem when it comes to the quality of its goods; the last thing it needs is to become associated with deadly medicine. As part of Beijing's push for closer ties and greater influence in Africa, Chinese firms are building hospitals across the continent, often at cut-price rates with the help of State backing. But if these hospitals' pharmacies are filled with made-in-China fake drugs, the goodwill caused by their building is undone.
The problem isn't confined to Africa. Although the developed countries have tighter checks and regulations on imported drugs, fake or toxic chemicals from Chinese firms have sometimes infiltrated the production chain, to deadly effect. A batch of tainted heparin that killed over 80 people in the US in 2007-08 was traced back to a Chinese manufacturer, resulting in a gush of newspaper stories that highlighted the dangers of cheap imports.
One persistent problem is that Chinese chemicals made for export are not subject to the same inspection and oversight as those made for domestic consumption.
Entirely different government departments handle chemicals for export, leading to a lack of coordination. Even for the domestic market, inspection is often lax or easily evaded by paying off the right people. As always, simple "crackdowns" will not solve the problem. The incentives involved need to be permanently changed. That means tightening up domestic purchase of pharmaceuticals, detaching hospitals' incomes from selling drugs, and giving doctors and regulators the appropriate pay, training, and professional spirit.
Otherwise fake drugs will leave behind not only ruined lives, but wrecked diplomacy.
Global Times | 2013-1-3 19:49:05
By James Palmer
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