Washington, Feb 12 : An analysis conducted by teams from across the globe has highlighted both the growing threat posed by fake anti-malarial drugs and the complexities of tracking down those responsible for the trade.
Dubbed Operation Jupiter, the investigation has led to the arrest by the Chinese authorities of alleged traders of fake anti-malarial drugs in southern China and the seizure of a large quantity of drugs.
Fake anti-malarial drugs have become a matter of grave concern, particularly in South-East Asia and Africa.
In countries like Myanmar (Burma), the Lao PDR, Cambodia and Viet N, where the burden of malaria is large, as many as 50 percent all artesunate tablets (one of the most effective anti-malarial drugs) are counterfeit.
Most of the drugs examined contained no artesunate, and some had a wide range of potentially toxic wrong active ingredients.
Also a serious concern was the fact that counterfeiters sometimes included dangerously small amounts of artesunate in the tablets.
This may be done to foil screening tests of drug quality, but these doses are too low to be efficacious, yet high enough to contribute to malaria parasites becoming resistant to this class of drugs.
"Those who make fake anti-malarials have killed with impunity, directly through the criminal production of a medicine lacking active ingredients and by encouraging drug resistance to spread. If malaria becomes resistant to artesunate, the effect on public health in the tropics will be catastrophic," said Dr Paul Newton of the Wellcome Trust-University of Oxford SE Asian Tropical Medicine Research Programme
Also, researchers used a technique known as forensic palynology to study pollen contamination within the fake tablets with the aim of tracking down the likely location of manufacture.
The pollen evidence suggested that at least some of the counterfeit artesunate came from southern China, and this was supported by examination of the mineral calcite, found in some of the samples.
With these findings in hand, Chinese authorities arrested a suspect in China's Yunnan Province in 2006.
The analysis highlights the need for more to be done internationally to support countries with a high prevalence of counterfeit anti-malarials in their attempts to combat this severe but under-recognised public health problem.
International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL), the World Health Organization's Western Pacific Regional Office, and the Wellcome Trust-University of Oxford SE Asian Tropical Medicine Research Programme, in close cooperation with Chinese authorities coordinated the investgation.
The results are published in the open access journal PLoS Medicine.