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June, 2017

Battling counterfeit science in China

China has a growing problem with counterfeit laboratory products. Unlike most Chinese counterfeits, they are sold through specialized websites, often integrated with legitimate supplies, and the supply chain includes a network of partners not privy to the situation. The bogus lab products include chemistry reagents (substances that induce a chemical reaction), serums used in cell culture, and common laboratory kits.

This specialized form of counterfeiting has been successful in China because of surging investment in scientific research and the complexity of the distribution system. To keep pace with demand, foreign firms must engage with local distributors, who do not always work with authorized manufacturers of laboratory products. As China's customs and quality-control measures may create long waits (and inflated prices), opportunistic merchants offer what appear to be the same products at lower prices - and deliver them swiftly.

The counterfeit laboratory products vary in constitution and efficacy. In some cases, ordinary, low-priced antibodies are repackaged as premium and hard-to-find. Often, the fake antibodies are of a similar molecular weight so that scientists who test them out may not initially realize they are fake. However, in experiments, "the antibodies will miss their targets," Nature.com says.

Dilution is more common than antibody substitution. In a typical scenario, a counterfeiter would buy genuine products from local or foreign distributors and then spread out the contents of a single packet over five individual ones. That results in customers getting inferior, weaker versions, that ​may or may not be usable.

Analysis:

It's hard to assess the effects of the counterfeit laboratory product business accurately. However, scientists in both China and the West say that the fake products have negatively impacted their work, causing them to waste time and materials.

Counterfeiters of laboratory products are difficult to detain and punish. Typically, if a customer complains, distributors will reimburse them or replace the goods. Yet researchers have no legal recourse when it comes to their lost time and resources. “Police will only look at direct loss, which is nothing,” Jack Leng, chief executive of Shanghai Universal Biotech, a top distributor of antibodies in China, told Nature.com.​

In one case, Abcam, a major supplier of protein research tools to life scientists, confronted several unauthorized distributors the company believed were supplying fake Abcam antibodies. The distributors told Abcam they did not know the source of the antibodies or "how the problem occurred." Legal experts have cautioned Abcam against pursuing legal action - they say it would be expensive and probably ineffective.

Fortunately for brand owners, scientists and suppliers are fighting back against the counterfeiters. Top reagent manufacturers are educating customers about the counterfeit problem. Scientists are communicating with each other about the problems they have encountered and sharing tips on how to eschew bogus supplies.

The key to defeating the counterfeiters, however, lies in reducing the customs burden faced by legitimate laboratory products - which will require support from the upper echelons of the Chinese state. If genuine products can enter China swiftly, the profit margins of counterfeiters will be wiped out.

China has made tremendous progress in scientific research since its launch of economic reforms in 1978. It would be a pity to see the nation's quest to become a global leader in science hampered by thieves of intellectual property.

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