• Former senior police officer claims as much as 120m fake drugs sold in UK
• 120,000 packets of faked heart drug sent to UK chemists last week
• Regulator plans to increase testing but claims counterfeits not huge problem
"All the indications are that there's every likelihood that people [in the UK] suffering from serious conditions will fail to have them ameliorated and will sometimes die. We don't know how long that's been going on for, but no-one should be surprised if deaths have occurred" - Graham Satchwell, industry security analyst
Story in full VAST quantities of fake medicines are flooding into Britain every year and have almost certainly caused the deaths of patients, a leading expert claimed yesterday.
Graham Satchwell, a former police detective chief superintendent who now works as an industry security analyst, said the scope of the problem was largely unknown because of a lack of a comprehensive monitoring system. But he claimed that the UK would be doing well even if several hundred- thousand counterfeit drugs were being sold in chemists every year and warned the true figure might run into millions.
The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (MHRA) yesterday told The Scotsman it planned to increase significantly the amount of testing of medicines in an attempt to prevent fakes getting through, but insisted that there was not a major problem.
Last week it emerged that 120,000 packets of a bogus version of the heart drug Lipitor were sent to pharmacies. It was the third time in the past year that fake treatments were found in the healthcare system.
In Canada, the deaths of eight heart patients are being investigated after fake versions of the drug Norvasc - made of talcum powder - were found on sale in chemist shops.
Mr Satchwell said: "The United Nations and World Health Organisation say that something between 8 and 10 per cent of pharmaceuticals are counterfeit worldwide. I think we probably are much better than that. But let's say it is only 3 per cent - there are 120 million packets of medicine imported a year and three per cent of that is 3.6 million. And even if it was 0.3 per cent, we're still talking about 360,000 fake medicines.
"You could reasonably expect that people with serious and common diseases will sometimes be getting counterfeit products. In other parts of the world, that has led to deaths.
"All the indications are that there's every likelihood that people [in the UK] suffering from serious conditions will fail to have them ameliorated and will sometimes die. We don't know how long that's been going on for, but no-one should be surprised if deaths have occurred."
Mr Satchwell, who wrote a report on counterfeit medicines for Interpol, said the scale of the problem should not be under-estimated. "This is not a simple crime story involving one dead body, it is a very, very complicated crime story involving thousands of dead bodies," he said.
"When someone dies from a pre-existing condition, there will always be the assumption that the drugs they have used have been genuine and in such circumstances there is no post-mortem and no-one knows."
Nimo Ahmed, the head of intelligence at the MHRA, said the level of random testing of drugs was being stepped up. "We used to get them from pharmacies, bring them into our labs and test them. We test about 800 a year," he said.
"What we are trying to do now is test at all points of the supply chain, specifically targeting those medicines which we think are mostly likely to be [counterfeited] in developed countries."
Mr Ahmed said the main counterfeiting problem was with "lifestyle" drugs such as Viagra, which are sold illicitly over the internet or in pubs. He said raids on distributors of these drugs were "routine".
However, Mr Ahmed insisted that the public should not been unduly alarmed about prescription medicines. "I think it's a small problem. In terms of likelihood, there's been three cases and we write 600 million prescriptions a year.
"If it was going in to the dozens, we would know about it. It is not going to be significantly higher than that. I would say that we have got as good a record in terms of being difficult to penetrate as anywhere else around the world. We're still confident we have got a well-regulated system, but we'd never say it's impenetrable."
In the United States, regulators have said a barcode system should be introduced so that drugs can be traced. A venture company called Aegate has developed and piloted a scanner system that would enable chemists to spot a fake, providing each drug was given a unique bar code.
Alison Williams, Aegate's head of marketing, said: "Chemists scanned 180,000 items [in the pilot] and about 14 per cent had bar codes which were inaccurate.
"Bar codes are used all the time in supermarkets on a daily basis and they are accurate. Why can't we have that with medicines?"