Rapid Rise In African Anti-Counterfeiting Efforts Led By Developed Nations

Nick Wadhams | 09 Dec 2008
Intellectual Property Watch
NAIROBI, KENYA - Amid fears that huge quantities of counterfeit medicines and pesticides are pouring into Africa, the international law enforcement agency INTERPOL is leading the way to invest more effort and money to bring authorities up to speed on the threat faced by those who depend on the imports, from hospital patients to pharmacists to farmers.

The programmes include OASIS-Africa, an initiative funded by the German foreign ministry that aims to help law enforcement agencies in countries up and down the continent to crack down on international crime. Among the first of the OASIS anti-counterfeiting moves was Operation Mamba, a police action in Uganda and Tanzania in September and October that led to the seizure of more than 100 kinds of medical products, including anti-malarial pills, multivitamins, skin medicines and heart drugs.

Four pharmacies in Tanzania were shut down; in Uganda, police are investigating 38 shops on suspicion that they are working illegally. "

IP crimes, especially those which have a direct impact on the wellbeing of millions of people, are transnational crimes that need a coordinated and focused response," OASIS Director Giuliano Zaccardelli said at a Nairobi conference on intellectual property issues held last month.

INTERPOL is investing more effort and attention to Africa as the staggering extent of the counterfeiting problem on the continent becomes clearer. While precise numbers are difficult to come by, the World Health Organization believes that 30 percent of drugs sold in developing countries are counterfeit; in some parts of Africa, that number could be as high as 90 percent.

That is resulting in possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. The pressing need to counter that threat was part of the reason for the Nairobi conference. Ronald Noble, the secretary general of INTERPOL, told the conference that counterfeit drugs are believed the reason behind 200,000 of the 1 million deaths that result from malaria each year.

"And that is only the figure for malaria - we may never really know the untold lives that could be saved if all counterfeit drugs were eliminated," Noble told the conference.

The counterfeit drug trade is only growing, and in Africa, where corruption is rife, the sale of unregulated medicines is particularly troublesome. Because poverty is so endemic, people are desperate to find the cheapest medicine possible. And because salaries are so low, customs agents and police often take part in the trade.

On Tuesday, for example, the international corruption watchdog Transparency International planned to release its 2008 "Bribe Payers Index," in which it was expected to announce that the medical care and pharmaceutical sectors were most prone to corruption.

Warnings of Overreaching Anti-Counterfeit Efforts

There are concerns from some nongovernmental organisations, however, that efforts to crack down on counterfeiting in some African countries will impede the import of generic but legitimate drugs to treat ailments such as HIV/AIDS.

In Kenya, for example, the nongovernmental group Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has warned that a proposed counterfeiting bill includes a definition of counterfeit drugs that is broad enough to ban generics. Passing the bill could seriously hinder Kenyans' access to cheap drugs.

"The consequences on access to life-saving medicines such as the antiretrovirals nevirapine or lamivudine, for example, both patented in Kenya, and on the sustainability of AIDS and other treatment programmes that rely on generic production or importation would be devastating," MSF said in a statement in October.

Counterfeiters Shifting Tactics

In the meantime, experts also say that counterfeiters have come to focus on another means of making cash: fake pesticides and other chemicals for farming. The agrochemical industry fears that African farmers are poorly educated about the potential problem, and do not know that what they are buying might be fake.

Failed crops would have devastating effects in East Africa, where local people get much of their diet from subsistence farming and national economies rely on exports such as coffee, flowers, tea and vegetables for revenue.

"Because there has been so much investigation on counterfeit medicine, I'm seeing a trend from the bad guys to move over to bad products that are less easy to find," D'Arcy Quinn, international director for anti-counterfeiting at CropLife International, said in an interview. "One of the great ways to do it is pesticides because vegetables don't complain."

"It's a lot like medicine, it's a very easy product to counterfeit," said Quinn. "The farmers at this point don't think the reason their product is going bad is because this stuff is counterfeit, so we have to start educating them."

Fake pesticides were responsible for a failed coffee crop in Kenya 10 years ago. And the use of counterfeit or unregulated agrochemical has become so severe that the European Union has warned it could ban agricultural imports from Tanzania because tests revealed that the products' pesticides levels were "all over the map," said one agriculture industry representative with knowledge of the debate, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"If that happens, you can imagine the impact on the economy," the source said.

That has led international anti-counterfeiting advocates to focus their work on making sure governments realise just how much counterfeit drugs cost them - in taxes, failed crops, and human lives.

In Kenya, for example, the National Quality Control Laboratories concluded that counterfeit drugs - sometimes nothing more than chalk pills or bottles filled with water - accounted for $130 million in annual sales.

"One specific focus of these training programmes is to show the adverse effect on their economy and their people, until they understand that this is harming them," Brad Huther, senior advisor at the US Chamber of Commerce's Global Intellectual Property Center, told Intellectual Property Watch.

"What we're learning is that the more they understand why it's in their interest to promote strong engagement and anti-counterfeiting activities, only then do you see the kind of radical change in enforcement along their borders."

There are fears too that the situation will only get worse in Africa as its nations build ties with China, where up to 75 percent of the world's counterfeit drugs and pesticides are believed to originate. For the last several years, the Chinese government and Chinese companies have signed numerous deals with the leaders of African nations to build roads, import goods or mine natural resources. As those supply chains open up wider, experts fear that more counterfeits will follow.

"The Chinese have taken the short-term approach of saying, 'It will take us a long time to fix this problem,'" said Huther. "But I've been hearing 'Give us more time' for five years now and I've seen no sign of significant improvement in China."