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Counterfeit medicines, from headache pills to cancer drugs, have become a multibillion-dollar problem

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: counterfeit drugs that have little medicinal value, and in some cases can harm, are a major problem worldwide.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Tonnes of counterfeit and illegal medicine are seen after a 2015 seizure in Dakar. A similar week-long, Interpol-coordinated blitz last fall saw authorities in 116 countries seize 500 tonnes of fake pharmaceuticals worth an estimated $14 million US. (Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images)

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  • Counterfeit drugs that have little or no medicinal value, and in some cases can cause harm, have become a multibillion-dollar problem worldwide.
  • Remembering Joe Schlesinger.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Fake drugs

The World Health Organization is warning cancer patients in North America and Europe about a batch of fake drugs that contain nothing but a common painkiller.

The product alert, released earlier this month, says that counterfeit medicine packaged to look like the cancer drug Iclusig, known generically as ponatinib — a targeted therapy for chronic myeloid and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia — simply contains acetaminophen.

The fakes, first discovered by a Swiss wholesaler, have also been detected in Turkey and Argentina. They were being sold online at a fraction of the more than $16,000 US that American pharmacies currently charge for a one-month supply of the drug.

Counterfeit or substandard pharmaceuticals are a big business, worth an estimated $200 billion US a year.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where the bulk of the fakes are sold, the WHO estimates that as many as 116,000 people die due to ineffective malaria medication each year. It adds that the counterfeits are adding hundreds of millions to health care costs, due to the treatment and hospitalization of people who might not have otherwise been infected.

Bottles of counterfeit Viagra, confiscated by U.S. Customs and Border Protections. Counterfeit or substandard pharmaceuticals are a big business, worth an estimated $200 billion US a year worldwide. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

A week-long, Interpol-coordinated blitz last fall saw authorities in 116 countries seize 500 tonnes of fake pharmaceuticals worth an estimated $14 million US. The haul included anti-inflammatory medication, birth control pills, and counterfeit treatments for HIV, Parkinson's and diabetes. (Investigators also found more than 110,000 fake medical devices like hearing aids, contact lens and syringes.) The seizures resulted in 859 arrests and the closure of 3,671 weblinks.

In recent years, Health Canada has been waging a battle against counterfeit Viagra, Cialis and Levitra — sometimes containing too little of the active ingredient, and sometimes too much. All of it widely available online at a steep discount from the $15 per prescription pill.

Authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are currently dealing with a spate of overdose deaths linked to fake Valium and Xanax. The pills, which are being pressed in the U.K. from materials made in Far East drug labs, differ dramatically in strength with every batch, and sometimes contain entirely differently sedatives than the brand names.

No one is quite sure how to best tackle the global fake drug crisis.

Workers pile 50 tonnes of fake medicine for incineration after it was confiscated in Abidjan in 2017. Several nations around the world are turning to tracking systems to help buyers and sellers determine whether medicine is genuine. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)

West African nations are talking about creating their own pharmaceutical firms to try ensure that quality products make it to local markets. Kenyan authorities plan to roll out a system of country-specific codes that pharmacists and consumers can track via a smartphone app, ensuring that they are selling and buying real, government-approved medicine. 

Some believe that blockchain systems might provide the answer, documenting every step of a drug's journey from manufacturer to consumer.

Although it's unclear if any technology will ever be able to trump politics.

This past weekend, the European Union finally debuted its own continent-wide system to fight and track fake drugs, which has been more than four years in the making.

But the U.K. will no longer have access come March 30, if it fails to reach a Brexit divorce agreement.

Almost three-quarters of the prescription drugs used by the National Health Service are made in Europe.

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A few words on ... 

Duelling protests.

In memoriam

Quote of the moment

"I am aware that many Canadian wish me to speak on matters that have been in the media over the last week. I am in the midst of obtaining advice on the topics that I am legally permitted to discuss."

Part of a statement issued by Jody Wilson-Raybould this morning, announcing her resignation from Justin Trudeau's cabinet, and the hiring of a lawyer to advise her on her next steps in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from federal cabinet this morning. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

What The National is reading

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  • Strep A kills half a million people a year. Why don't we have a vaccine? (Digg)
  • Baby removed from womb for surgery, then put back (Telegraph)
  • Katy Perry 'saddened' as her shoe line is taken off shelves for being racist (Sky News)

Today in history

Feb. 12, 1995: Icewine, a Canadian phenomenon

A Grand Prix D'Honneur at VinExpo in Bordeaux, France, in 1991 gave Inniskillin and the rest of the Canadian icewine industry instant global credibility. Tens of millions of bottles of the ultra-sweet dessert tipple have since been sold, and are recirculated every Christmas.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.