Coverage Of Anti-Counterfeit Policy Debate Varies Widely Across Global Media

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Are counterfeit products first and foremost a threat to human health and safety or is provoking anxiety just a clever way for wealthy nations to create sympathy for increased protection of their intellectual property rights? In Geneva the debate is raging, but a look at a sample of coverage of this issue in the world’s news media shows it can vary greatly.

Few would defend the manufacture and distribution of dangerous or ineffective drugs. But some argue that attempts to fight fake drugs are as much a risk to access to the real medicines as the fakes themselves. Legitimate, low-cost generics – often the only medicines the poor can afford – can get caught in the crossfire of anticounterfeiting enforcement measures. In addition, they say, there is need to combat not only medicines that violate trademarks (as counterfeit is often defined) but also medicines of general low quality (harder to spot and often, some say, a greater problem).

With a range of information competing for writers’ attention, media portrayals of this complex issue often differ dramatically in their portrayal of the issue.

French language paper Tribune de Genève last week captured some of this debate in a front-page story detailing the North-South divide on counterfeit medicines, interviewing several of the key Geneva-area diplomats working on the issue. But what of news sources farther away from the action at the World Health Organization – where debate has flared hot since 2009 over the agency’s work on fake medicines, and as of May is now in the hands of an intergovernmental working group – and at the World Trade Organization – where concern over IP-enforcement limiting generic-drug access this spring turned into two official dispute settlement proceedings?

American business news television network CNBC recently ran a dramatic special called “Crime, Inc” calling counterfeiting the “largest underground industry in the world” with “hundreds of billions of dollars … generated while sapping the economy, putting lives in jeopardy, and funding organized crime in the process.” Of counterfeit products, it calls drugs the “most lethal.”

At the other end of the spectrum comes Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, who has been decrying “baseless” counterfeiting statistics for years. With the headline “CNBC embarrasses itself on counterfeiting,” Salmon dissects the statistics listed in the show, which he called “quantitative dissonance.”

The BBC, which recognises the problem of access to affordable drugs, calls counterfeit medicine a “growing problem across the world” and a “racket controlled by violent criminal gangs.”

According to the English language China Daily, Chinese crackdowns on both counterfeit drugs and underground radio stations were intended to protect public health (apparently the underground stations “broadcast advertisements for fake or substandard medicine,” China Daily reported).

The volume of such medicines is also unclear: the European Union’s customs authority recently published a report detailing what it says is an “upward trend” in IP-violating goods crossing its borders, citing 43,500 cases of such goods in 2009 with 10 percent of them falling into the category of medicine.

Meanwhile, news from Uganda’s National Drug Authority said recently that in the last 10 years cases of medicines failing to meet quality standards at the country’s national labs has fallen by 15 percent since the early 2000s, according to the InterPress Service.

Hard to Define

Defining what these drugs are is particularly difficult, especially as what ‘counterfeit’ means is one of the larger areas of disagreement among experts at the WHO. The InterPress Service article says “counterfeit medicines can be both branded and generic medicines and refer to drugs without the necessary ingredients to treat the disease it is fraudulently purported to treat.” IPS has also written about some of the problems misapplied enforcement of counterfeiting can cause, such as in Kenya where an anti-counterfeiting law was causing confusion between counterfeit and generic medicines.

An article from Business Insight Malaya from the Philippines notes that “counterfeits may or may not contain the same active pharmaceutical ingredients as the authentic product” in a report on a coalition of pharmaceutical companies saying the government had been underestimating the size of the problem. It adds that “almost all of medicines are now being faked.”

Some just treat counterfeiting as one among many threats to drug safety, as this recent article from the Tanzania Daily News, which says “the issue of substandard and counterfeit medicines remain a huge problem” and goes on to list critical problems as expired medicines, poor storage facilities and poorly followed storage and usage instructions as well as counterfeit products, which it defines as “imitations or substitutes of another product likely to deceive or bear upon its label or container, the name of another product,” or “deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled products,” including those with correct ingredients but fake packaging as well as those containing the wrong ingredients.

Others focus on solutions. South African news agency the Daily Maverick and US news agency Bloomberg both wrote recently of a new solution to fight the “fake-drugs monster. MPedigree, a Ghanaian-based group looking to fight counterfeiting with technology is currently launching a plan to place codes on legitimate medicines, they write. The code can then be sent via mobile phone text message free of cost to a database that answers whether the drug is legitimate or not.

Others, such as the Times of India, worried about how generic drug companies would fare with accusations of counterfeiting. “EU custom authorities are increasingly seizing Indian drugs for patent infringements in European ports,” said a January 2009 article, adding “[e]xperts believe that EU is deliberately trying to create legal barriers to prevent movement of drugs to developing countries to protect its own industry.”

As talks continue in Geneva, the message to consumers of potentially dangerous drugs remains mixed.

Kaitlin Mara may be reached at

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  1. Miles Teg says

    If this issue was so important, then why is business mucking about with dubious statistics. No less than the International Chamber of Commerce came up with a statistic in the late 90’s that 7% of goods were counterfeit. When scholars looking into the figure that the OECD lapped up initially then decided to check these scholars found that the figure had no statistical underpining. Thereafter, the ICC did research and confirmed the 7% figure. Everyone aside from large property rights owners have to use credible evidence to substantiate their claims, which is a cause for concern.
    On health, somehow there is the belief that a patent list is going to solve the Drug Regulatory problems in Africa. While Africans get patent dossiers and new legislation, China gets mobile drug testing 4×4 vehicles through WHOs controversial IMPACT programme… funny how things actually play out…


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