UN Agency Ties Fraudulent Pharmaceuticals To Organised Crime In West Africa

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A United Nations agency has linked shipments of fraudulent pharmaceuticals with cocaine trafficking and smuggling of migrants as illegal activities carried out by transnational organised crime syndicates that are contributing to instability in West Africa.

The report [pdf] is a threat assessment issued by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) entitled Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa.

It found that the profit from cocaine trafficking alone may still be larger than the national security budgets of several West African countries, making it difficult for local law enforcement. Support will be needed from outside the region to tackle the problem, it said. More data collection and regional coordination is essential.

On fraudulent medicines, it said they are mainly trafficked from South and East Asia (overwhelmingly China, followed by India), but some are manufactured locally. Some have been detected transiting Europe, while most shipments travel through free zones, such as in Dubai. Imports have grown at a remarkable rate, it said, as the value of pharmaceuticals imported into West Africa more than tripled from 2004 to 2010.

In defining such medicines, the report acknowledges the differences in terms used by the World Health Organization and in collected data, and then defines them as medicines differing substantially from what the packaging says they are. The dangers from this are grave, it said.

Using a variety of citations, the report provides details on the manufacturing and selling of fraudulent medicines, such as how they are shipped, the supply chains and who is doing it. Some products suggest intentional fraud (such as counterfeit packaging or substitute ingredients), others may just represent incompetence, while others are hard to pin down, it said. Often, doses are undercut, perhaps to save costs, but not so much that they are detected in simple reagent tests.

In the case of China, there appear to be West Africans in China and Chinese in West Africa involved. China and India are also setting up manufacturing facilities in the region.

Medicinal fraudsters are opportunistic, UNODC said, and so the prevalence of the problem is much higher in countries that lack the ability to crack down.

Studies found a wide variation between countries in the way drugs are distributed but that often the official government-sanctioned pharmacies are inefficient and uncompetitive, leaving many to opt for cheaper informal options.

On policy implications, the report said, “West African pharmaceutical markets are greatly in need of regulation, but it is unlikely that many West African states will have the capacity to regulate them in the near term.”

“At present, the region has both very open borders and completely disparate pharmaceutical distribution systems,” it said.

As to recommendations, the report said the approach should be regional, and made the suggestion that a region-wide list of approved producers be prepared.

“Manufacturers who repeatedly introduce substandard medications would be blacklisted,” it said. “Medicines from nonapproved sources would be subject to confiscation. This list should be centrally managed to reduce abuses and to promote competition.”

William New may be reached at wnew@ip-watch.ch.

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