China’s lifting of online drug ban raises counterfeit concerns

CFDA online pharmacy imageAs China’s medicines regulator lifts a long-term ban on companies selling prescription drugs online, the spectre of fake treatments raises its head.

The China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) is finalising which prescription medicines to approve for sale and this is expected to be completed later this year, a senior healthcare policy adviser told the news wire Reuters.

This will open up a whole new market worth over 1 trillion yuan ($161bn), with online pharmacy companies like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. expected to cash in.

Drugs sold online may be up to 10 per cent cheaper than those sold through traditional channels, according to analysts, given that costs will be lower.
But with this new market comes new counterfeit fears, especially as fraudulent online pharmacies are rife and notoriously difficult for regulators to deal with.

The CFDA has already had to deal with illegally imported cancer drugs online. Most recently in June, AstraZeneca’s lung cancer treatment Iressa (gefitinib) and several other oncology drugs were found by the regulator to be fakes.

The online sellers claimed of the treatments claimed they were imported from India – they were being sold online at a price about one-tenth that of legal drugs of the same kind.

This came a month after a striking warning to patients from the CFDA when it released a statement saying that it “cannot guarantee the safety, authenticity and efficacy of cancer medicines purchased online”.

The warning was issued after a study by drug regulators in Shenzhen found that 75 per cent of foreign cancer medicines purchased online were found to be counterfeit or ineffective.

Given these issues, there will need to be a major investment into regulating online pharmacies, as well as a greater emphasis on helping patients identify genuine sellers from counterfeiters, if this level of fraud is going to be tackled.

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