Counterfeit medicines represent a serious threat to health. They compromise the patient’s safety and, in the worst case, their survival. Imitation luxury goods such as watches, bags or clothes harm companies financially and are frustrating for consumers who have paid a high price for what they thought were branded products. In all instances, counterfeit products infringe intellectual property rights, which include patent protection, trademarks, copyright and data protection.
Not only lifestyle products are affected by counterfeits
Counterfeit medicinal products are no longer restricted to lifestyle products such as muscle-enhancing substances and slimming aids. Nowadays, cancer therapies, medicines to treat cardiovascular diseases, antibiotics, analgesics, contraceptives and other products available only on prescription are also the target of counterfeiters.
Imitation products may contain the correct active substance, but the dosage may be too high or too low, or it may be contaminated with other substances. The situation can also become dangerous if there is not a trace of the expected active substances in the product, or if they contain another active substance or even a toxic substance. In many cases, counterfeit medicines contain ground bricks or flour, in rare instances other active substances or toxic substances such as insecticides or rat poison. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ten percent of the world’s medicinal products are counterfeits, and in developing countries this figure is even higher.
Established distribution chains ensure safety
In industrialised countries, the majority of counterfeit medicines gain access to the market through online sales. The WHO estimates that over 50 percent of medicines bought illegally online may be counterfeit.
The strict authorisation procedures for medicinal products, the licensing procedure for manufacture and distribution, and established distribution chains are the best ways of ensuring that medicinal products in Switzerland are safe. The purpose of all these efforts is to ensure that patients get the prescribed medicine at the right time, in flawless quality and with the correct patient information. There is no danger of a patient being given counterfeit medicines in Switzerland if they are obtained from official sources such as pharmacies, drugstores, hospitals or doctors’ practices.
The battle against counterfeit medicines
The pharmaceutical companies work closely together and with the customs authorities and regulatory authorities. Manufacturers affix visible and invisible markings to packs of medicinal products to make imitation more difficult. These markings include holograms, ink that changes colour or iridescent surfaces. Since 2019, the pharmaceutical industry has also been using tracking technologies such as serial numbers, combined with a two-dimensional data matrix. These technologies enable the medicine to be tracked at all times and each pack to be checked for authenticity. This is achieved by marking each pack with a unique serial number that is stored in a protected database. The pharmacist checks the identification code of every medicine before it is dispensed to the patient. The system alerts the pharmacist if a pack with an unknown number is found, or a pack with a number that has already been scanned prior to being dispensed to this patient.
Additional measures have been introduced throughout the EU to increase security even further within the regular supply chain. Since 2019, for example, packs of prescription-only medicines have been equipped with a tamper-proof seal.
The Interpharma member companies undertake to ensure that identification features that comply with the European security standard and permit product identification at the point of sale are printed on medicine packs in Switzerland too.