Counterfeit antibiotics feed drug resistance, superbugs

Regulators and law enforcement officials have been tracking down fake cancer drugs in the U.S. and Europe in the last few years as counterfeiters have targeted those high-priced drugs. But a more pervasive problem, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is counterfeit and substandard antibiotics getting into the global supply chain and creating resistance to treatments while fueling the emergence of so-called superbugs.

While the problem with substandard drugs has been particularly bad in areas like Southeast Asia and India, a WHO program has found that antibiotic resistance is growing everywhere, including in the West, Bloomberg reports. "Because the demand is so high for antibiotics, it's not unusual to see those who falsify these products concentrate on them," Michael Deats, head of the WHO's drug safety and vigilance team, told the news service.

Counterfeits are seen as a threat by drugmakers like Pfizer ($PFE), which produces the antibiotic Zithromax. The drugmaker is attacking the problem by focusing on illegal online pharmacies that sell counterfeits of Zithromax and other Pfizer drugs. The U.S. drugmaker has teamed up with Microsoft to develop methods of identifying associated networks of counterfeiters through the servers tied to their online pharmacies and the banks tied to their websites, Bloomberg reports. The computer tracking has allowed them to wipe thousands of illegal online pharmacies at a time, it reports.

"Substandard medicines can create resistance such that the bona fide medicine can't treat the patient when he gets it eventually," John Clark, Pfizer's chief security officer, told the news service. "It's a horrific situation."

India manufactures about 40% of the antibiotics used in the world. Antibiotic resistance has gotten so bad in that country, Bloomberg said, that the government implemented a rule this year requiring pharmacies to dispense second- and third-tier antibiotics because the standard treatments are no longer effective and may be fakes. A sampling of a variety of drugs by the Drug Controller General of India since December 2012 found that about 2.3% of products tested failed to meet standards.

Of course, antibiotics are not the only counterfeits that drugmakers and authorities have to guard against. Criminals are also trading in counterfeits of other lifesaving drugs. Drug regulators and law enforcement officials in Europe have been warning wholesalers and healthcare providers to be on the lookout for vials of a number of drugs that were stolen from hospitals in Italy and then diluted, faked and resold. Several Roche ($RHHBY) cancer drugs were among them, as were vials of Eli Lilly's ($LLY) Alimta, another cancer drug, as well as Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) arthritis blockbuster Remicade.

- read the Bloomberg story