Reluctance to access healthcare in pandemic ‘raises fake meds risk’

People are buying prescription-based medicines over the internet rather than seek medical advice amid the COVID-19 crisis, says a UK industry group.

Phil Lewis, director general of the Anti-Counterfeiting Group (ACG), says the trend is worrying given the dramatic fall in visits to general practitioners in the UK for routine consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

NHS Digital data shows the total number of appointments recorded in GP practice systems fell from 6m at the beginning of March to 4.25m by the end of that month – a reduction of almost 30 per cent.

“This has happened at a time when large organised gangs, operating across the world have turned their attention to online crime” said Lewis.

“They use sophisticated websites, social media and e-commerce platforms to advertise products using fake trademarks, brand names and certification labels to try and convince customers they’re buying genuine, safe products.

“The reality is quite different. These predatory criminals have set out to dupe consumers into buying fake and unregulated medicines, which could easily maim and endanger their lives.”

In March, the latest instalment in the Interpol-led international campaign against falsified healthcare products – Operation Pangea – reported a dramatic uptick in falsified medicinal and healthcare products claiming to diagnose, treat or prevent coronavirus infections.

Counterfeit facemasks, substandard hand sanitisers and unauthorised antiviral drugs claiming to treat COVID-19 were among $14m-worth of illicit products seized in the operation, which involved enforcement agencies from 90 countries and led to 121 arrests.

Interpol has officially confirmed that some fake medicines have been found to contain mercury, arsenic, rat poison and even cement.

ACG notes that a public information campaign, featuring NHS staff, was launched earlier this month to persuade the public to use their local health service.

“The message was clear. GP services remain “Open for Business” and people’s conditions may worsen if they do not get the correct medical advice. If anyone requires a consultation, they should contact their local practice immediately," says the organisation.

It also reminds the public that buying medicines and remedies from unregulated sources is dangerous.

“Think hard before you buy anything online especially if you are providing your personal and bank details,” advises Lewis.

He goes on: “Avoid websites that have no physical address, that make claims like ‘no risk’, ‘perfectly safe’, ‘totally legal’, if the price is unusually low, there are spelling mistakes or if payments can only be made using unfamiliar methods such as ‘bitcoins’ or other cryptocurrencies.”

Counterfeit antibiotics, lifestyle drugs and painkillers are the most common fake drugs entering the country, often by post or express courier deliveries. Worryingly other medicines have also been arriving, counterfeit drug treatments for cancer, HIV and heart disease, and even local anaesthetics.

“If you are worried about any websites and counterfeit products, contact your local Trading Standards team,” says ACG.

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