Turkey cracks counterfeit medicines cabal

Turkish flagThe authorities in Turkey have carried out a series of raids across the country that they claim have taken down a counterfeit medicines ring.

All told, police and other enforcement agencies conducted 130 raids in nine different provinces, uncovering a network producing and distributing fake cancer drugs, including products that found their way onto the US market.

Last year counterfeit versions of Roche's Avastin (bevacizumab) - bearing the Turkish brand name Altuzan and containing no active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) - were discovered in the US medicines supply chain last year. UK citizen Richard Taylor was jailed for 18 months for his part in the distribution of the counterfeits in July, but at the time of writing it is not clear whether the two cases are related.

The raids in Turkey took place in Istanbul, Antalya, Ankara, Batman, Adana, Sanliurfa, Igdir, Diyarbakir, and Kocaeli. A total of 56 arrests were made in the operation and a printing operation in the Bagcilar district of Istanbul - where members of the group produced counterfeit drug labels - was shut down.

Local reports suggest the group was involved in the manufacture of more than 30 different types of medicine. In addition to manufacturing counterfeits from scratch the ring was also involved in re-labelling out-of-date drugs.

Five hospital workers have been detained as part of the investigation, while two doctors are being sought by police. The gang was exposed by a vigilant nurse at Şişli Etfal Education and Research Hospital in Istanbul, who spotted a discrepancy with expiry dates.

Turkey's Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (AIFD) issued a statement in the wake of the operation noting that the counterfeiting operation is "alarming", particularly as the country has implemented a national programme of medicine serialisation via 2D barcodes - the drug tracking system (ITS) - which should make it hard to carry out this sort of illegal activity.

The AIFD points to a potential weakness in the system in its statement, noting: "to ensure impeccable functionality of those safeguards, the 2D barcode on a product purchased must be scanned and checked on the system at the pharmacy to verify its authenticity, since having a 2D barcode alone may not necessarily attest to the authenticity of the product; the 2D barcode must be verified on the system."

It recommends that all 2D barcodes on medicine packs are scanned and verified in pharmacies, and the product checked to make sure it has not been re-packaged or removed from the original packaging.

"A common practice of counterfeiters is to replace original label of products nearing expiry with a fraudulent label," it noted. "Therefore, the product's expiration date, and the consistency of the date and batch number on the immediate packaging within the carton (e.g. blister, bottle, tube) should be checked."

If possible, patients should prefer purchasing their drugs from the same pharmacies that they regularly visit, and never purchase drugs on the Internet, adds the AIFD.

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