October, 2017

Chinese counterfeiters export lethal fake painkillers to U.S.

Original article: Pain News Network

The Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM), a coalition of pharmacy groups and other healthcare organizations, has published a new report describing the prevalence in the United States of lethal counterfeit medicine. Bogus painkillers and other fake medications made with illicit fentanyl have killed Americans in 16 states, according to the report. China is one one of the major producers of the counterfeit medicines. 

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid used to treat severe pain. It is often legally available in lozenges or patches. But in recent years, ultra-potent illicit fentanyl has appeared on the black market, where criminals mix it with heroin or use it in the manufacturing of counterfeit drugs. Because fetanyl is so potent - 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine - even a little too much (two or three milligrams) can be deadly. 

Up until now, it’s been difficult to grasp the scope and pervasiveness of the counterfeit drug problem,” said Dr. Marvin Shepherd, chairman of the PSM Board, in the report. “We’ve had a number of examples of counterfeit pill seizures and tragic fentanyl-related deaths, but this report paints a picture of a nation under siege from fake and lethal drugs coming across our borders."

States including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio now say that overdoses of illicit fentanyl are killing more of their residents than prescription opioids. 


Fentanyl was largely unregulated in China until late 2015, when China's Food and Drug Administration added it to its list of controlled substances. Following that move, illegal labs in China began to alter the fentanyl molecule. That's easy to do for anyone with a good background in chemistry with access to lab equipment, according to a March report in Science Mag. "By adding chemical groups, unscrupulous chemists have created new, unregulated variants, some of them even more potent than the original," the Science Mag report notes. 

A February report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission found that "China is a global source of illicit fentanyl...because the country's vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries are weakly regulated and poorly monitored." 

Science Mag notes the difficulty of catching Chinese drug counterfeiters. Typically their websites list phony addresses - they may lead authorities to an abandoned shopping center, for instance - and they work with third-party sales agents to ensure their transactions are tough to trace.

Meanwhile, the dangerous drugs themselves are readily available online - often labeled as "research chemicals." A Google search by TIPG for "research chemicals fentanyl" turned up three sites based in China offering that substance and many others for delivery across the developed world. Chinglabs.com, ostensibly based in Henan Province, urges potential customers on its website to "Buy your favorite research chemical." 

Chinese officials dispute the U.S.'s claim that China is the world's foremost producer of illicit fentanyl, pointing out that Washington has not produced a large amount of evidence to support its allegations. Still, Beijing has signaled a willingness to work with the U.S. on the problem. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) plans to open an office in Guangzhou soon; the office is currently pending final approvals by Chinese authorities.