A study of counterfeits of a single medicine brand has identified similarities which suggest one criminal organization is likely behind the trade, say scientists from pharma company Roche and the Institute of Forensic Science in Switzerland.


The team systematically profiled samples of the unnamed product in capsule form taken from 33 separate seizures around the world between 2004 and 2013, reports an article on Securing Industry. The researchers then analyzed the chemical composition of the counterfeits—along with packaging—which was discovered in a number of different distribution channels.


Writing in the journal Forensic Science International, the authors, led by Klara Dégardin, a counterfeit analysis expert at Roche, explain that the counterfeit capsules were screened using techniques such as near infrared (NIR) and Raman spectroscopy, followed by chemical testing in the lab, while the packaging was studied using visual comparison with genuine products. Other intelligence data such as the date and country of seizure, amount of fake product seized and the seizure type—online, pharmacy or in-transit—was also taken into consideration.


The team identified strong linkage among the capsules seized at the different production steps, indicating the presence of a main counterfeit network dominating the market. The interpretation of the links with circumstantial data provided information about the production and the distribution of counterfeits coming from this network, the research team writes.


The results of the analyses “favor the hypothesis of one single main network dominating the market” for this particular counterfeit, with production carried out at industrial scale, the authors determined.


Material information gathered from seizures constitutes the only tangible trace of the illicit action, the authors write. Furthermore, traditional ways of investigating this type of crime have failed to solve the problem as the counterfeiting persisted over several years. The data gathered via this process “may not be sufficient for Court, but [is] amply sufficient for intelligence-led action,” the authors write.


Admittedly, the profiling approach “is still in its infancy,” the researchers write. However, they also believe the pharma industry could learn a lot from the way this approach is implemented by agencies tackling the trade in narcotics. That’s because while detecting counterfeit is chemically relatively simple for specialists, much more information can be gained from the analyses in a forensic intelligence perspective. Analytical data can feed criminal investigation and law enforcement by detecting and understanding the criminal phenomenon. Profiling seizures using chemical and packaging data constitutes a strong way to detect organized production and industrialized forms of criminality, write the authors.


This forensic intelligence perspective has the potential to be generalized to other types of products. Indeed, this may be the only reliable approach to help the understanding of the organized crime phenomenon behind counterfeiting and to enable efficient strategic and operational decision making in an attempt to dismantle counterfeit network, the researchers conclude.


What are your thoughts on the work of the researchers and their forensic intelligence? Do you think this may become a wide-spread practice in the pharmaceutical industry?