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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chirac demands action on fake medicines

By Andrew Jack in London

Jacques Chirac, France’s former president, is to spearhead a political campaign for an international treaty to criminalise fake ­medicines as concern grows over their threat to public health around the world.

Mr Chirac is set on Monday to unveil in Cotonou in Benin a declaration signed by African and Asian heads of state calling for a United Nations convention to fight fake medicines by imposing tough penalties, strengthening manufacturing and distribution controls and improving awareness.

The move marks a fresh step by regulators, governments and medical groups in taking more aggressive action as criminal groups exploit poor controls, high profits and limited enforcement to diversify from narcotics into the business of fake medicines.

It also marks one of the most high-profile initiatives so far by Mr Chirac’s ­foundation, established after the end of his term as French president, and dovetails with long-standing French concerns over counterfeits.

“Informal co-operation is not enough,” said Mr Chirac in a written interview with the Financial Times. “Fake medicines have become a real market that is poised to overtake that for narcotics. It is essential to mobilise all parts of society. An international convention ratified by the UN will provide a framework to attack criminal networks.”

While counterfeit drugs are a relatively small problem in the US and Europe – found mainly as “lifestyle medicines” purchased over the internet – some studies have suggested that most malaria drugs and other essential treatments for serious illnesses in parts of Africa and Asia are fake and killing patients.

A study released last week showed 60 per cent of drugs sold at private pharmacies near the border of Cambodia and Thailand were substandard or counterfeit.

Mr Chirac’s efforts are focused on sub-standard medicines that do not contain the claimed and approved ingredients, side-stepping the issue of generic drugs that meet approved quality standards but which may violate the patents of the companies that originally developed them.

Officials hope the Cotonou declaration, to be endorsed by senior African Union leaders and ministers from other countries, will trigger discussion at the World Health assembly next May, ahead of a conference at the end of next year in Geneva.

Some countries including Nigeria have long advocated an international convention, while others have preferred instead to focus on less formal co-operation.

There may also be political tensions in approving and enforcing a convention from countries including China and India, where many fake medicines are produced for domestic and international use.

Mr Chirac’s foundation has a planned budget of €1.5m ($2.2m, £1.4m) for next year. Donors include pharmaceuticals group Sanofi-Aventis and Alain Mérieux, the owner of biotech group.

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