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WHA Addresses Counterfeit Medicines

May 20, 2010

Discussions about combatting counterfeit medicines continued at the 63rd World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva on Wednesday, Agence France-Press reports. "The proliferation of potentially lethal or harmful counterfeit medicines has been on the rise, particularly with the increased usage of the Internet worldwide. According to the WHO, more than half of all medicines bought online are fake," the news service reports (5/19).

FDA Chief Margaret Hamburg, speaking at the WHA, said of counterfeit drugs, "They put people at risk of harm from medical products that may contain too much, too little, or the wrong active ingredient and/or contain toxic ingredients. ... Counterfeiting is growing in complexity, scale and geographic scope," Reuters reports.

The problem is global, according to the WHO, and in the developing world, especially Africa, counterfeits for treating "conditions such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS" can be life threatening. Nigeria's WHA delegate told delegates, "Only last year we lost 84 children in Nigeria due to fraudulent practices in some countries. It is lives we are talking about" (Nebahay, 5/19).

Brazil and India, "big producers of generic drugs," asserted that "major drugmakers [that] are unfairly labelling generic medicines as counterfeits, and using the fight against fake medication to suppress competitors who are making lawful generic drugs," AFP reports. "Together with some Latin American and African developing countries, the two countries called on the WHO to end a partnership established in 2006 called IMPACT (International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce), which includes groups that represent the interest of pharmaceutical firms," according to the news service (5/19).

Intellectual Property Watch reports that "opponents say [IMPACT] has led the WHO -- perhaps intentionally -- to confuse the issue of substandard, falsified or otherwise low quality or unsafe drugs with 'counterfeit' medicines," while IMPACT supporters "argue that the group was intended to address public health and not patents, and should remain involved with WHO."

According to Intellectual Property Watch, "WHO members are wrestling with how WHO should proceed with work on fake medicines -- including how to refer to such medicines" (Mara, 5/20). The Financial Express reports "the [Indian] government has proposed to the WHO that the term 'counterfeit' shouldn't be used as an equivalent of fake or spurious drugs. The term 'counterfeit' instead relates to [intellectual property] infringement" (Das, 5/20).

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan "said that her United Nations agency would not be drawn into policing intellectual property (IP). 'The role of the WHO should be concentrating on public health, not on law enforcement nor intellectual property enforcement,'" Reuters reports (5/19).

In other WHA developments, Arab News reports on a Memorandum of Agreement the U.S. signed with Saudi Arabia, which according to the Saudi Health Minister Abdullah Al-Rabeeah "provided continuous joint programs between the two countries in various health sectors. The areas of the accord include exchange of experience and experts, infectious diseases, children's diseases and training health officials and medical and research activities" (Sooldeen 5/20).

In a statement HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that the agreement "highlight[s] our mutual interest in public health, focusing on disease surveillance moving forward, expanding training and capacity development, and the Saudi commitment also was reemphasized to help eradicate polio and to continue to contribute to that important effort" (5/18).

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