Counterfeit Drugs Bought by US Oncology Practices

By Kim Smiley

Counterfeit Avastin, a cancer treatment drug, was purchased by as many as 19 U.S. oncology practices last year.  The counterfeit drug did not contain anything that would harm patients, but there were no active cancer fighting ingredients in it. There have been no reported cases of patients being given the fake drug, but there was a very real risk that this could happen.

How did this happen?  How could so many medical facilities fall for a counterfeit drug?

This example can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis format that intuitively shows the cause-and-effect relationships between the many Causes that contribute to an issue.   In this case, many factors led to the oncology practices purchasing the fake Avastin.  The supplier offered the lowest price for the drug, about $400 less than the manufacturer’s price.  Additionally, the supplier appeared to be legitimate and had a very convincing salesman working for them.  The supplier appeared to have both US phone number and offices in the US.  In reality, the US number phones were being automatically routed to an overseas number, but this process was transparent to the medical practices.  The counterfeit drugs themselves also appeared to be authentic.  As technology improves it is becoming more difficult to spot the fakes.

At this point in the investigation it’s not clear whether the supplier knew the drugs were fakes.  The company claims it had no knowledge that the counterfeit product.  One thing that is clear is why counterfeit drugs appear in the supply.  There is a lot of money to be made. Some prescription drugs are extremely expensive and selling fakes can be very profitable.  The drug in this case, Avastin, sells for more than $2,000 for a 400-milligram vial.  There are also generally less severe punishments for crimes associated with prescription drugs compared with the illegal drug trade.

It is estimated that less than one percent of the drug supply is counterfeit in developed nations, but counterfeit drugs are a huge issue in developing countries.  Even a small amount of counterfeit prescription drugs  has the potential for a large impact on peoples’ health.  There are a number of solutions to this issue that have been suggested.  The US Senate has recently passed a bill that pushes for stronger punishments for counterfeit drug trafficking and calls for a universal system to track prescription drugs, but it’s unclear how this might be adopted into law.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click “Download PDF” above.