India becomes a hub for fake medicines

"When we bust one operation, two more spring up elsewhere," says private investigator Suresh Sati, sitting. Pankaj Dutt works with Sati.
"When we bust one operation, two more spring up elsewhere," says private investigator Suresh Sati, sitting. Pankaj Dutt works with Sati. (Rama Lakshmi)
By Rama Lakshmi Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 11, 2010

IN NEW DELHI Private investigator Suresh Sati rattled off the popular brand names listed on the boxes of cough syrup, supplements, vitamins and painkillers sprawled across the desk and shelves in his basement office.

"They look real, but all these are fakes," said Sati, head of a New Delhi-based agency that helps police conduct raids against counterfeit-drug syndicates across the country. "A regular customer cannot make out if a drug is fake. . . . The biggest giveaway is when someone is selling medicines very cheap. It is almost always fake."

India, the world's largest manufacturer of generic drugs, has become a busy center for counterfeit and substandard medicines. Stuffed in slick packaging and often labeled with the names of such legitimate companies as GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Novartis, the fake drugs are passed off to Indian consumers and sold in developing nations around the world.

Experts say the global fake-drug industry, worth about $90 billion, causes the deaths of almost 1 million people a year and is contributing to a rise in drug resistance.

Estimates vary on the number of these drugs made in India. The Indian government says that 0.4 percent of the country's drugs are counterfeit and that substandard drugs account for about 8 percent. But independent estimates range from 12 to 25 percent.

Indian officials say the clandestine industry has hurt the image of India's booming pharmaceutical industry and its exports, worth $8.5 billion a year, mostly to African and Latin American countries.

To clamp down on the illegal trade, the health ministry launched a reward program this year offering $55,000 to those who provide information about fake-drug syndicates.

Last year, the ministry also strengthened its drug law to speed up court trials. Suspects found guilty of manufacturing and selling fake drugs can be sentenced to life in prison.

The number of people arrested for manufacturing and selling fake drugs rose from 12 in 2006 to 147 last year, and drugs worth about $6.5 million were seized over this period.

"It is very difficult to dismantle the entire operation," Sati said. "When we bust one operation, two more spring up elsewhere. Convictions are rare."

The tricks of the trade include sticking fraudulent labels on expired products, filling vials with water, stuffing small amounts of real ingredients in packages of popular licensed brands and putting chalk power in medicine packets.

But more than the concern for public safety, officials here have been particularly alarmed about recent incidents that discredit India's image abroad.

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