Over 60% of medicines purchased online are fake and could potentially be lethal for vulnerable patients, says a new report by the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines (EAASM).

In a study of over 100 online pharmacies selling 30 commonly purchased prescription-only medicines, the alliance found that 62% of the medicines were counterfeit and 95.6% of the online pharmacies were operating illegally. Most sold medicines without a prescription that would normally be needed for the drugs.

The research, published last week in a report called ‘The Counterfeiting Superhighway’, found that of 2.5m fake pharmaceutical items seized at EU borders, 70% were imported from the Middle East and Asia and were fake.

The report says: “The vast majority of online pharmacies uncovered via search engines, email spam and online supermarkets are untrustworthy and will readily provide online buyers in Europe with illegal, substandard and/or counterfeit medicines.

“One of the most concerning aspects from a patient safety perspective is that the majority of websites evaluated appear to be sufficiently well written and presented as to easily, and wrongfully, gain the confidence of unknowing consumers…it is highly likely that such websites will deliver ineffective, unapproved and/or bogus medicines which will harm – and possibly kill – people.”

EAASM’s chair, Jim Thomson, said the manufacturers and suppliers of the fake drugs were ‘criminals’ and more must be done to make the internet date for patients seeking online medications.

“These criminals pose a significant global threat to public health today. The purpose of this report is not to frighten vulnerable patients. It is to raise awareness and speed the day when the internet is a safe place for the collective good of humanity, and not a free-for-all criminals,” he said.

Of the pharmacies analysed by the researchers, only 6% had named, verifiable pharmacists and just 10% asked for prescriptions for medicines not available without one.

Half offered bulk discounts for drugs such as treatments for sexual dysfunction, weight loss and hair loss, but only 16% actually had verifiable business addresses listed on the website. Only 4% of the online pharmacies studied were listed as legitimate websites.

“The risks to developed European countries -where regulatory oversight is more stringent – are increasing rapidly due to the internet and its ability to facilitate cross-border trade. The internet, now fairly ubiquitous in Europe though poorly regulated with regard to buying medicines, represents a major loophole through which counterfeit medicines can reach consumers,” the report says.

Both the UK and Germany are identified as European countries where patients look to the internet to buy prescription-only medicines, related to the high volume of spam e-mails sent to consumers in these countries.

Experts studying the counterfeit medicines found a number of problems with medicines they were sent from online pharmacies including foreign languages on boxes, poor English, inferior quality of paper, incorrect watermarks and fake certificates of authenticity.

Ian Banks, president of the European Men’s Health Forum, said: “This report is definitive evidence that governments, healthcare providers and especially non-government organisations need to wake up to the threat from counterfeit medicines.”


The Counterfeiting Superhighway report