Despite warnings, flu drug counterfeiters brace for rush

Pharmaceutical CommercePharmaceutical Commerce - May 2009

Product demand driven by mass media hype

As if the swine flu itself wasn’t enough to worry about, drug safety organizations around the world have issued warnings against buying online antivirals to fight it. And the commercial daily press has uncovered sources to say the disease may become resistant to them anyway.

Individual country warnings about counterfeit Tamiflu and Relenza, the two drugs known to fight the H1N1 swine flu virus, were capped by an Interpol (Lyon, France) statement: “It has been seen time and time again that following a global threat or natural disaster, criminals exploit the situation for their own financial gain,” says Jean-Michel Louboutin, executive director of police services, in the statement. “By responding to spam swine flu emails or attempting to order medication online through illegal and unregulated websites, people are risking their wellbeing and their money.”

In the U.S., the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) attempted to double-team counterfeiters via a joint press release describing “an aggressive strategy to identify, investigate, and take regulatory or criminal action against individuals or businesses that wrongfully promote purported 2009 H1N1 influenza products in an attempt to take advantage of the current flu public health emergency.”

The World Health Organization estimates that half the drugs sold by online pharmacies having no physical address are counterfeit. USA Today reported earlier this month a warning from Harvard researchers that “widespread use of one of the antivirals would risk creating a resistant strain of the flu and make it difficult to halt its spread.” Experts say the medications should be reserved for only the very ill or people with severe immune deficiencies.

Finally, Time magazine provided the frosting for the flu-hype-idemic cake when it reported on Google Flu Trends, the application that tracks web searches incorporating such terms as “flu symptoms” to estimate disease spread. “The benefit is that [online data tracking systems] rely not on hospital data, but on real-time information from people who are actually in the process of getting sick,” in contrast to the scientifically valid process of verifying the disease in people to track the outbreak—“a process that could take up to two weeks.” This could lead to a virtual supply and demand model: Hypochondriacs accelerate the flu spread via Google Flu Trends, igniting counterfeit production and bogus sales to the strongest online demographic—the online masses checking Google Flu Trends.

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