Pharma sector's war versus counterfeit drugs intensifies

More complex drug supply chains have increased the prevalence of counterfeit drugs around the globe in recent years.

More complex drug supply chains have increased the prevalence of counterfeit drugs around the globe in recent years.

Those seeking to counterfeit drugs now have multiple opportunities from the raw source material phase to a finished product to send fake or less effective pharmaceuticals to consumers or medical providers. Between 2005 and 2010 worldwide sales of counterfeit medicines rose 90% to $75 billion.

This year's most publicized case involved fake versions of Avastin, an injectable cancer drug made by Roche, a Genentech subsidiary, which were shipped from the Middle East to US clinics. FDA tests found the counterfeit versions didn't contain the active ingredient.

Since consumers can't buy Avastin directly, Roche's outreach efforts have focused on medical providers via letters and through talking points given to sales staff.

Patient confidence
"The most important thing is that doctors are using appropriate channels approved by the FDA so patients can be confident they are receiving medicine that is treating their cancer," says Charlotte Arnold, associate director of corporate relations at the company.

A media relations effort involving outreach to publications such as The New York Times has been alerting the public of the company's activities as cases of counterfeiting continue to turn up. The company is referring enquiries to the FDA, the agency spearheading investigations into fake Avastin. Genentech's communications efforts are being handled in house, says Arnold.

Pfizer has also had its share of issues over the years. Counterfeit versions of at least 60 of its products have been detected. During 2011, authorities from 50 countries seized more than 11.4 million counterfeit doses - tablets, capsules, and vials - a 36.8% increase from seizures reported for 2010. To combat the problem, Pfizer launched a slate of communications tactics.

The FDA message

In addition to pharma companies, the FDA should also be reaching out on counterfeit issues, according to one agency leader. The FDA should shift from its tendency toward general consumer campaigns to focus on targeted correspondence with physicians, the source of prescriptions.

"It's challenging to engage the medical community with a patient campaign," says Wayne Pines, president of healthcare at APCO and former associate commissioner for public affairs at the FDA. "Doctors are increasingly busy with the amount of patients they are seeing."

The FDA primarily reaches out to the public through material on its website, public alerts, and presentations at regulatory, scientific, and public health meetings, according to Shelly Burgess, a public affairs specialist at the organization.

The company's communications efforts highlight the work its security team, made up of former FBI and other law officials, does to investigate and stop counterfeit operations.

Pfizer has given the media access to its counterfeit lab in Connecticut and to people such as VP and chief security officer John Clark, a former FBI agent.

"This shows the senior leaders who are dealing with this issue on a daily basis," says Chris Loder, senior worldwide communications director at Pfizer. "It also provides credibility; there are no better people to tell the story."

Two major messages Pfizer is working to get out is that taking counterfeit drugs can put consumers' safety at risk and the need to make sure consumers are buying from a legitimate pharmacy when purchasing a drug online.

Using YouTube
In addition to media outreach, Pfizer utilizes a YouTube channel, as well as the sites for its often-counterfeited products such as Viagra, and ads to get the word out.

One tool Clark wishes the company could utilize is mortality rates, which are almost impossible to ascertain.

"If you die after six months of taking a counterfeit drug, people assume it was because of the illness," he explains. "People don't automatically trace back to see if the drug was legitimate."

Reyn Archer, chief medical officer at Burson-Marsteller in DC and former deputy assistant secretary of health, called Pfizer's efforts effective. He specifically praised a piece that appeared on 60 Minutes last year.

As digital media becomes more prevalent in campaigns, maintaining traditional media outreach is critical for an issue such as counterfeit drugs.

"People are naturally trusting. They will not be searching on- line to see if a drug such as Avastin is authentic or not," says Archer. "That's why it's important that national media is put-ting this information in front of folks in a visual way." 

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