Recently, a team of Georgia Tech chemists analyzed the contents of 25 different types of emergency contraceptive pills (often called the morning-after pill and marketed as Plan B) bought in Lima, Peru.
What they found is pretty concerning. Seven of them, or 28 percent, were either counterfeit or of such poor quality that they probably wouldn't work in preventing pregnancy.
Six of the samples had insufficient levels of the artificial hormone that prevents the release of an egg from the ovary (levonorgestrel) or were formulated incorrectly, so the hormone wouldn't be released properly as the pill dissolves in the body.
Counterfeit drugs are an international problem
News that contraceptives sold in South America are substandard or counterfeit might not seem like a big deal to US readers, but this is an global problem. The pills had been manufactured in a range of countries (Argentina, Chile, China, Colombia, Hungary, India, Pakistan, Peru and Uruguay), and because of the international nature of the pharmaceutical trade, counterfeit drugs have been increasingly showing up in the US market.
Internationally, it's estimated that counterfeit drugs are now a $75 billion dollar industry that accounts for one to ten percent of all drugs sold.
In the US, most counterfeits are lifestyle drugs sold on the black market — counterfeited Viagara is the most common — but all sorts of pharmaceuticals have been found to be fake. In 2012, during widespread shortages of Adderall, counterfeit versions began popping up for sale on the internet. In some instances, fakes have made their way into the legal supply chain — like in 2012, when a fake version of the cancer drug Altuzan that contained no active ingredient was distributed by a Tennessee company.
Counterfeit pills are an especially big problem in Africa, where an estimated 35 percent of anti-Malaria drugs are either fake or of substandard quality. Last June, customs officials in Angola discovered 1.4 million packets containing fake Coartem — an anti-malaria drug — in one of the biggest seizures of counterfeit pharmaceuticals in history.
The current technological standard for spotting fake pills in the field, the GPHF MiniLab, is essentially a scientific laboratory in a suitcase, and needs to be operated by trained scientists. But a number of compact and easy to use systems are currently in development, including the FDA's new CD-3 — currently in use at a few international mail screening facilities in the US — that shines infrared light onto a pill, allowing a user to compare the resulting image to one of a pill known to be genuine.