China's deadly trade in fake drugs
Updated on 11 July 2007
The former head of China's Food and Drug Administration found guilty of taking bribes to licence fake drugs has been executed. Lindsey Hilsum reports on the deadly trade.
The execution is a dramatic show of the Chinese government's determination to rescue its reputation after a series of scandals involving unsafe products.
Last year 10 people died after taking fake antibiotics in Eastern China; more recently attention has turned to counterfeit drugs and contaminated foods exported around the world.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 10 per cent of drugs in circulation are counterfeit - with China the biggest source.
Often officials turn a blind eye to back street factories and Zheng Xiaoyu's rapid execution was a message from the central government to Chinese and foreign consumers who worry that medicines made in China could be ineffective or even lethal.
Tan Jiangying of the State food and drug administration said: "The few corrupt officials of the State Food and Drug Administration are the shame of the whole system and their scandals have revealed some very serious problems.
"I think we need to reflect seriously on what lessons we can draw from such cases. We should step up our efforts in food and drug supervision, to ensure safety for the people."
'The further you get away from Beijing, the more opaque things get'David Fernyhough
China's international image is at stake, because in the last year harmful ingredients have been found in several products - including a cough syrup which killed dozens of people in Panama.
Investigators say it won't be simple to stop because the central government does not control what is going on.
David Fernyhough, of Hill and Associates, said: "The further you get away from Beijing, the more opaque things get, and at a provincial and municipal level, the corruption, the influence of the people involved, quite often officials themselves, involvement of state owned enterprises, it makes it a very, very difficult environment."
At Guilin Pharmaceutical in southern China, they are worried about their reputation and their profits. They make WHO-approved drugs for malaria and each blister pack is carefully marked with a hologram.
But the counterfeiters have now made 14 generations of hologram each one more difficult to distinguish from the real thing, and fake Guilin anti-malarials are turning up all over South East Asia.
Yu Zhemin of Guilin said: "They use laser technology. You can't see the writing from the front. It has to be torn apart and put under strong lights to read."
'I think that these people should be the criminal people because they kill the people'Rural medical assistant
In northern Cambodia, near the border with Laos and Thailand, malaria kills.
Children are susceptible, especially now in the rainy season. Those who have come to the provincial hospital are getting the proper treatment, but often poor families can't afford the transport.
One woman said all her children had come down with malaria after working in the paddy fields and she crossed two rivers to get here. But sometimes, she said, she just buys whatever drugs are available in the village.
Every day the medical assistant rides out into the countryside to treat minor ailments and provide health education. He knows the damage fake drugs can do.
He said: "I think they are very dangerous. The patient not only lost the money but also they have the illness become worse and then finally they die.
"I think that these people should be the criminal people because they kill the people. Intentionally, they kill people."
Fake drugs: why China's got all the ingredients
The tray of random drugs she was selling in amongst the vegetables looked like your granny's medicine cabinet, writes Lindsey Hilsum - a few out of date antibiotics, some paracetemol and a handful of unidentified pills in a tube labelled something else entirely.
We were at a village shop in northern Cambodia, up on the border with Laos and Thailand, a remote area where the Khmer Rouge were mounting attacks until the late 90s and land mines still litter the bush.
- Fake drugs: why China's got all the ingredients
In the village store medicines are sold alongside vegetables, candles and cooking utensils. Steroids are here, antibiotics and sleeping pills; the cheaper the drug the less likely it is to be real, and people often ask for the cheapest available.
The owners of the village stalls know nothing about the drugs they're selling - they have no idea whether they are fake or real. And the problem is especially acute in remote areas where people are very poor, in South East Asia and increasingly in Africa. The manufacturers of fake drugs are making millions and investigators say on many occasions the trail leads back to China.
Last year, Cambodian health workers found counterfeit Guilin Pharmaceutical anti-malarials.
David Fernyhough said: "We've seen a huge amount of Taiwanese money going into China and backing the manufacture of counterfeits, and we're talking hundreds of million of dollars going into the setting up of manufacturing, bribing officals to prevent the raiding, setting up networks and exploiting those networks, paying off the freight forwarders, the customs officials to get the product from where it's being manufactured out into the international community."
In the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, provincial pharmacists are learning how to identify fakes. They will be given testing kits to take up-country.
Some fakes have no active ingredients - other have just a little, which may mask symptoms and set up resistance. There is a limit to what pharmacists and health workers can do in the face of widespread corruption and official indifference in exporting and importing countries.
As more unsafe drugs and foodstuffs are smuggled to Europe and the US, China is reviewing the licences of 170,000 medicines, many approved under the former drugs boss.
But fake pharmaceuticals are part a growing and increasingly sophisticated organised crime network which one execution and a few raids are not going to break.