x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Tighter controls on fake drugs sought

Official says agencies must work together to stop flow of counterfeit products and equipment coming into or passing through UAE.

DUBAI // The UAE must tighten its border controls and increase co-operation between enforcement agencies if it hopes to turn back the rising tide of counterfeit drugs, officials said yesterday. The Ministry of Health said it would work with customs and free zone officials to stop fake medicines and medical equipment from entering the country or passing through its ports.

Dr Amin al Amiri, the chief executive of medical practices and licensing, said the ministry would ask customs officials to stop clearance for medicines and equipment until it had approval for each consignment. He said the ministry also planned to work with free zones to ensure that devices and medicines being imported were checked by the ministry. Speaking at the Regional Conference on Fighting Counterfeit Medicines, Dr al Amari said the ministry hoped to reduce the UAE's role in the global trafficking of illegal products. He declined to say how much counterfeit material was coming into or passing through the country.

However, figures from the European Commission's Taxation and Customs Union recently showed that the UAE was the origin of almost nine per cent of all counterfeit medicines seized at European borders in 2008. The UAE was the third largest importer after India and Syria. Dr al Amiri said the ministry had increased inspections and raids of pharmacies and stores, and had toughened penalties for people found to be manufacturing, distributing or buying counterfeit medicines.

The conference, which was sponsored by Pfizer, attracted representatives from about 15 countries. Ashley How of the Pharmaceutical Security Initiative (PSI), said the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries were attractive to criminals who traffic illegal goods because of its location between the East and West. The PSI is a non-profit organisation that works with police, customs bodies and pharmaceutical companies to monitor and track counterfeit medicines. Over the past three years, it has recorded a steady increase in the trade of illegal drugs.

Referring to parts of Europe and the Middle East, Mr How said: "We see a flow of counterfeit medicine coming in and out of that area, therefore it must be impacting on everyone in that area. It is either moving from East to West or the other way around." Mr How said it was normal for more than one country to be involved in the trade of counterfeit medicines. He referred to a 2006 case that began with an online pharmacy based in Canada and stretched halfway around the world and back.

"We found the medicines were being shipped from China to Hong Kong to Dubai and then the UK," Mr How said. Orders received on the website were sent to the Bahamas, where instructions were issued to ship the medicines from the UK to the customer in the US. A stash of more than 380kg of medicines was seized after a covert operation. "The court case is still ongoing in the Bahamas," Mr How said. "If we hadn't been told about it from UK Customs, it would not be a statistic and we would not have known about Dubai's involvement."

He said investigators found that the medicines initially went into a free zone warehouse at Dubai airport owned by a fictitious company, and were later moved to the Jebel Ali free zone. Dr al Amiri said in addition to increased inspections and raids, a federal pharmaceutical law would be introduced to tighten penalties and introduce jail terms and larger fines. Dr Mohammed Abuelkhair, the head of drugs and medical products registration at the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, said the law should deter pharmacies from knowingly stocking counterfeit drugs and stop importers from targeting the UAE market.

He said discussions were also taking place about the purchase of counterfeit medicines online. Because the UAE relies so heavily on imported drugs (up to 90 per cent), there is often poor availability and some companies opt for a cheaper way to fill their shelves. "Pharmacists should be very careful about what they are buying," said Dr Abuelkhair. "Also, when pharmacies are selling medication for half the normal price, you must ask 'How can they afford to do this?'."

As for individuals buying medicine online, he said: This is not a good idea. You do not know what you are getting, so it is unsafe." munderwood@thenational.ae