The Bitterest Pill: Maybe China Isn’t Counterfeiting Drugs -
After a May report finding a third of the malaria pills inspected in Asia and Africa, observers piled on pharmaceutical companies in India and China as likely bad guys. But the truth is a little harder to swallow.
Are unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies in China and India really to blame for fake malaria pills showing up in Asia and Africa?
Probably not. This past May, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published findings that 30 percent of 1,700 malaria pills tested in Southeast Asia and West Africa didn’t work. In one-in-three cases, a box labeled as treatment for the mosquito-borne plague actually contained pills made with inert chemicals, expired active ingredients, or ingredients cut to stretch one pill into several—enough to fill the box, each scantly more medicinal than an M&M.
The Malaria Research Institute at Johns Hopkins University estimates as many as half a billion people contract malaria and a million die of the disease in the world’s tropical belts each year. An estimate by the World Health Organization says only 216 million are infected and 660,000 die annually, which is more conservative but still pretty ghastly.
The Lancet study, which was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, urged further study of Chinese and Indian supply chains for malaria meds. Presented subtly in the research, the implication of wrongdoing by Chinese and Indian drugmakers got shrill once it hit the international press in June. Soon the World Health Organization had hauled out its representative in China, Michael O’ Leary, to defend the Chinese pharmaceutical industry, and announce that the world health body had created a “pre-qualification” system for Chinese pharmaceutical companies. (O’Leary can be heard making a cogent defense of the Chinese pharmaceutical industry here, in an interview on Australian radio broadcast two months ago.)
So if it wasn’t skeevy pharma outfits making millions of fake pills, how did they get on the shelves?