More and more counterfeited drugs are being sold on the internet. The risk for customers is high, because it is often unclear what substances such products actually contain. The European Commission has recognized the problem: from July it is introducing a Europe-wide logo to help customers identify legitimate internet providers.
The risk is serious: buyers of counterfeited drugs cannot rely on the quality of the products – they are risking their lives. Counterfeited drugs are usually made in unhygienic laboratories; the ingredients can be contaminated, overdosed or simply non-existent. Fraudsters often re-label medicines that are past their sell-by date, or ship counterfeited drugs in original packages. It is usually difficult for customers to distinguish falsifications from the original product. Instead of healing diseases, fakes can seriously worsen a patient's state of health. EU Commissioner for Health Tonio Borg warns: "Consumers need to know that they run the risk of being sold falsifications when they buy medicines on the internet – unless they order from a distributor that has been approved by the competent authority. At best, counterfeited drugs are ineffective; at worst they can be harmful or even fatal."
There are no precise figures on counterfeited drugs, but the number of unreported cases is high. Estimates suggest that about every second product sold on the internet could be falsified. Most of the fake medicines are produced in countries with poor law enforcement. The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that counterfeited drugs are made especially in Africa, Asia and South America. Since dubious online suppliers deliver worldwide, the products also find their way to Germany.
The new verification logo is to be introduced at the end of July. It enables customers to check the seller's reputability with little effort. The European Commission warns against buying from online pharmacies that are not on the list. EU member states have one year, starting from July, to certify the corresponding online pharmacies. The lists of all the EU member states are to be accessible at all times from the home page of the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
However, patients can already protect themselves against fraud today. For example, prescription products may only be sold against a valid prescription in Germany. If someone offers a prescription drug for sale without a prescription, that is an illegal offer. Internet fraudsters often offer drugs without any packaging or in the wrong pack. However, it is illegal to sell medicines without the complete packaging. The packaging consists of the carton, the blister and the information leaflet. In both cases, patients should not buy the products but report the dealer to the authorities.
If a suspicious drug is purchased despite all precautions, it should be shown to a physician or pharmacist, especially if the drug, once taken, has different effects, or if the packaging does not look right.
To further reduce drug falsification, Bayer is actively involved in the fight against falsifiers. Its 'Beware of Counterfeits' campaign aims to protect customers from illegal offers. Bayer warns explicitly against counterfeited products on sale in the internet. The company examines specific incidents in close coordination with the authorities and secures the relevant evidence. Bayer operates according to the zero-tolerance principle. If one or more offenders are identified, the company passes on all the available information to the public prosecutor's office to bring the people to justice.
Furthermore, Bayer informs patients by running awareness campaigns and printing brochures on how to distinguish genuine medicines from counterfeited products. If a customer remains uncertain about the reputability of an online trader, Bayer recommends they purchase the drug concerned in a local pharmacy or confer with their physician.
Bayer intends to use technical means to further improve the protection of its own products against falsification – for example to make it easier for the patient to distinguish between the original and a fake.