Bad Medicine in an Ailing Country

When the cargo arrived in Lebanon, the merchant tried to circumvent the registration procedure at the health ministry. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

By: Hassan Chakrani

Published Monday, November 12, 2012

The brother of Lebanese Minister Mohammad Fneish is on the run after flooding the Lebanese market with huge quantities of counterfeit medicine, most of which was never recovered. As health ministry authorities scramble to paint this scandal as an “achievement,” questions are being raised as to whether the government did enough to protect consumers.

A shipment set sail from China with a cargo of counterfeit Plavix, an essential heart medication, large enough to fill 100,000 packs. It reached Dubai, where it was packaged before being shipped off to Lebanon where an unknown number of people have been affected and possibly killed by the drug.

Upon discovery in 2010, the health ministry recalled the bad medicine from pharmacies, but only a few hundred packets were collected. Two years later, the merchant responsible for this deadly scam – the brother of Lebanese Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish – continued to make millions off of fake medications, earning the title of ‘Prince of Medicine’ in the local pharmaceutical market.

Last week, he was finally caught in another fake medicine scandal, according to sources monitoring fraud related to prescription drugs.

The most recent shipment, discovered last week, includes more than a hundred essential medications regularly prescribed in Lebanon.

So how did this medicine mafioso finally get nabbed?

The story picked up again in August 2012 when he imported a certain amount of counterfeit medications, mostly from east Asia.

Through “personal trade relations,” he was able to send his merchandise to European factories so it could receive the official factory seal and dispel any doubts about the origin, the sources maintained.

One of the most alarming aspects of this scheme was not just the big quantities, but the method of transport. “The merchant did not use refrigerated transportation. They used metal containers where the internal temperature could reach 60 degrees centigrade,” the sources added. Improper storage can degrade the medicine and alter its chemistry.

When the cargo arrived in Lebanon, the merchant tried to circumvent the registration procedure at the health ministry, ministry sources told Al-Akhbar.

However, after his circumvention attempt was foiled, the ministry did nothing until the merchant sent a clemency letter, asking to register the merchandise. The letter said that the medications were shipped at the wrong time and, “We inadvertently failed to refrigerate the shipment.” The weather in Europe was cold anyway, the letter read.

“What is stranger than this apology was the ministry’s approval of the clemency request,” the same sources told Al-Akhbar.

The merchant received a stamp of approval from the Minister of Health Ali Hassan Khalil despite having confessed to inadequate transport methods. The minister, on the other hand, claims that the signature and stamp are forgeries.

In either case, the fake medicines were sold on the market and distributed to pharmacies, hospitals, and various types of dispensaries.

When the scandal broke, Khalil said, “The so-called medicines scandal was one of the major achievements of the health ministry and regulatory agencies in reining-in the counterfeiting of prescription medications in an unregulated manner.”

He announced that the file and perpetrators are in the public prosecutor’s hands now.

Mohammad Fneish, the brother of the perpetrator who was once accused by some media outlets as being the infamous ‘prince of medicine,’ said that none of the perpetrators will be protected, no matter which political side they belong to.

When contacted by Al-Akhbar yesterday, Judge Hatem Madi, the public prosecutor at the Court of Cassation, indicated that the courts will begin following the case starting 12 November.

Judge Madi will be holding a press conference on 12 November, along with Khalil and Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi.

The conference will “clarify all the related circumstances and confusion...and launch a serious and resolute investigation,” said Madi.

Khalil has said that all the medications imported illegally were confiscated and “will be re-exported at the importer’s expense.”

Sources close to the case point to “tremendous difficulties in this regard, especially since a large part of the counterfeit medications were distributed to hospitals without packaging.” This means many patients have already taken the counterfeit medications, most of which have already been sold or distributed.

The importer appears not to care for the lives of those he profits from. He recently opened a pharmacy in Beirut at the cost of $2 million to the owner, sources said.

Unfortunately, the ‘prince of medicine’s’ scheme is not the only one.

“Fraud similar to this has been going on for years in an atmosphere that enables its continuity,” an independent source in the medical industry told Al-Akhbar.

Sources in customs do not deny the alarming level of fraud, whether through Beirut’s international airport or the seaport.

“[The merchants] get the necessary permits and signatures in an official manner, but it is never clear what they are bringing, or whether or not it is usable,” a customs clearance agent told Al-Akhbar.

Medicine importers are enjoying the incentives provided by the Lebanese market, which is growing steadily. Its current worth is estimated at $1.3 billion, expected to reach the $2 billion threshold in the next four years.

Local production of medicines only covers four percent of the market, in terms of value. This means the doors will still be wide open for importation and related fraud.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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