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Thursday 24th May 2018

Malaria drugs scam exposed

12th February 2008

Authorities in southern China have arrested a dealer of fake malaria drugs after an international sting operation revealed a growing trade in the life-threatening tablets.


Researchers found in recent tests that Southeast Asia is awash with fake malaria drugs, with as many as half the tablets tested in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and on the Thai-Burma border were counterfeit.

The Interpol and World Health Organisation (WHO)-coordinated investigation, dubbed Operation Jupiter, ran tests in the United Kingdom on 391 samples of artesunate tablets on sale in the region.

Artesunate is a common anti-malarial compound based on the traditional Chinese medicine herb artemisinin. It is a key component of the WHO-recommended artemisinin-based combination therapy for malaria.

Using a spectrometer to identify the constituents of the pills, they discovered that 195 out of 391 samples - 49.9% - were fake.

They also put the pills' packaging through a battery of tests, finding microscopic changes in hologram seals which pointed to fakery.

Many of the fake seals bore the logo "Guilin Pharma," the name of a large pharmaceutical company in Guilin, southern China.

They were hard to tell from the real thing, with impressive packaging complete with hologram and with some versions even containing low-level trace of the compound, possibly to disguise the product further.

Worryingly, such low levels of the compound could contribute to resistance to artesunate in the population, making the killer disease harder and harder to treat.

But most of the counterfeits examined by the team, who published their findings in the online Public Library of Science open access journal, contained no active drug and some had potentially toxic ingredients, including banned pharmaceuticals and even the raw material for making ecstasy.

More than a million people die of malaria every year around the world. Some of the counterfeit drugs were traced back to the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, where police had already arrested one suspect in the case, the report said.

It was tracked back to Yunnan using pollen traces and chemical analysis. The suspect is believed to have traded some 240,000 blister packs of 12 tablets, although only around 20,000 packs have been seized.

Lead author Paul Newton of the Wellcome Trust-University of Oxford SE Asian Tropical Medicine Research Programme, said the malaria drugs scam was probably just the tip of the iceberg.

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