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Published on Nov 20, 2022
Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

Let’s talk about fake medicines

People all over the world rely on medication for things like managing chronic illness and treating life-threatening diseases.

Yet people unknowingly consume fake medicines every day, even in developed countries with well-regulated healthcare systems. They put their lives at risk for something they should be able to trust. The pharmaceutical industry and global medicine regulators are constantly working to keep any below-standard and fake drugs out of circulation. But questions remain: What exactly are fake drugs? How big is the counterfeit drug problem? And who is at risk?

What are fake drugs?

Fake drugs are manufactured and packaged to look like genuine brand-name medications but often contain little to none of the active ingredients listed on the label. Fake medicines in the illegal supply chain pose a serious potential risk to unsuspecting people.

In some cases, these fake drugs simply don’t provide the needed therapeutic value as they may lack the active ingredients. In the worst case, some contain dangerous products.

“Some fake medicines have been found to contain mercury, arsenic, rat poison, or cement.”1

The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol)

Consuming illegal medicines can have serious consequences for individuals, communities, and overall global public health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in every 10 medicines in low- and middle-income countries are substandard or falsified. Not only does this erode public trust in healthcare, but it also leads to preventable deaths. For example, between 72,430 and 169,271 children have died of pneumonia each year after taking counterfeit antibiotics.2

Some illegal medicines contain real antibiotics or antivirals but at a much lower dosage than listed on the product label. It is not enough to fully treat the disease, and it can allow pathogens (such as bacteria and viruses) a chance to mutate and spread, which contributes to the growing public health threat of antimicrobial-resistant infections. Fake medicines might also contain other substances that appear where they aren’t supposed to be, which can lead to overdoses and deaths.

Substandard vs. Falsified vs. USubstandard vs. Falsified vs. Unregistered drugsnregistered drugs

There are several categories of fake medicines. In 2017, WHO introduced the terms "substandard" and "falsified medical products" to replace the general term "counterfeit drugs" and broadened the focus of global efforts to prevent such products from reaching consumers.2

Substandard drugs: are authorised medical products that fail to meet the manufacturer's quality standards or specifications, including medicines that have expired or were not stored properly.
Fake medicines: are medical products that "deliberately/fraudulently misrepresent their identity, composition, or source," including:2

  • Authorised drugs that have been stolen and resold

  • Unauthorised drugs that have been repackaged to look like brand-name products

  • Fake drugs that don't include the active ingredient listed on the product label

Unregistered/unlicensed drugs: are medical products that are sold in markets where they have not been evaluated or approved by health authorities in that country or region.

Some of these substandard, falsified, or unregistered drugs might be effective in treating disease, but the lack of regulation makes them unreliable, unsafe, and a serious problem. 

Counterfeit drugs: A global problem

For decades, fake medicines and their effects were mostly a problem in developing and low-income countries, where most people do not have access to prescription drugs, vaccines, and medical devices that are readily available in developed countries. This vacuum, along with loose regulations in some places, has created markets for fraud.

Now, thanks to the emergence of online pharmacies, countries around the world are struggling with fake medicines and their effects.

Understanding fake drugs and their effects

Illegal medicines often look like the medicines they're pretending to be, but they are simply not safe to take. And buying medications from anywhere other than a legitimate pharmacy could harm one’s health.

Illegal medicines are now available anywhere in the world, presenting a growing threat to everyone. Public health officials, law enforcement agencies, and pharmaceutical companies are working hard to minimise that threat, but it is important for the public to understand the risk of buying and consuming fake medicines. After all, knowledge is power.


  1. Fake medicines. INTERPOL. Accessed 4 November 2022.

  2. The WHO member state mechanism on substandard and falsified medical products. World Health Organization. Published April 2019. Accessed 4 November 2022.

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