To judge from the label, the 300-milligram quinine sulphate tablets manufactured by one Brainy Pharmaceutical are no different from any other product on a druggist’s shelves, the kind an unsuspecting customer might readily purchase to treat a loved one suffering from malaria.
But beneath the professional-looking packaging, the drug holds a few deadly secrets. It contains no active ingredients. It is not registered in either Cambodia or Thailand, where Brainy claims to be from. And Brainy Pharmaceuticals isn’t actually a pharmaceutical company.
Brainy is a “phantom manufacturer,” a name that appears on a drug label but that can’t be traced to any licensed pharmaceutical company. The drugs usually contain no active ingredients, or worse, active ingredients other than those specified on the label that could have damaging effects on the user, said Chroeng Sokhan, deputy director of the department of drugs and food at the Ministry of Health.
The National Malaria Center first became suspicious of Brainy in 2003, when tests on its tetracycline capsules and quinine tablets revealed no active ingredients. The Thai Food and Drug Administration confirmed that both the manufacturer and the products were unlicensed. The Ministry of Health has since identified four or five phantom brands, Chroeng Sokhan said Monday.
The center presented its findings at a November World Health Organization meeting in Hanoi of the Greater Mekong Sub-region countries on counterfeit drugs.
Phantom manufacturers are one factor contributing to the prevalence of counterfeit drugs in Cambodia, where up to 13 percent of all drugs on pharmacy shelves are fake, Chroeng Sokhan said. The Ministry of Health defines counterfeit drugs as those that are both unlicensed by the government and contain substandard levels of active ingredients, he said.
In late March, the US Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit organization that analyzes and issues reports on drug quality, confirmed the results of a 2003 National Malaria Center survey that found 28 percent of malaria drugs sold in Preah Vihear, Pursat and Battambang provinces and Pailin city were fake. Only unregistered drugs were found to be substandard, according to the center’s report.
The center will start testing drugs again this month, and should finish its study in November, said Lon Chan Thap, a clinical tropical medicine specialist at the center. He is seeking funds to install teams in each province to monitor the quality of drugs.
Fake drugs are more than a manufacturing glitch.
“Of course they kill people,” Chroeng Sokhan said.
In late 1999, Sam Veasna, a former wildlife official in Siem Reap province, died of malaria after being treated with ineffective mefloquine.