Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Counterfeiter - The Scientist - Magazine of the Life Sciences

From an office suite on the 28th floor of the Plaza Royale in Beijing, the baby-faced businessman had gone from selling shark cartilage and penicillin to Chinese hospitals and clinics to cashing in on the high-profit margins of the European and—he hoped—US pharmaceutical markets. Xu kept a list of 29 brand-name drugs he could deliver at cut-rate prices, from the baldness remedy Propecia to lifesavers like the antileukemia drug Gleevec. If it wasn't on the list, Xu boasted that he could find a way to get it.

Now, he thought he finally had an entrée to the US market. His contact, going under the name "Mr. Ed," was a bald, middle-aged man with a sketchy background in the clothing business. Ed ran a company based in Houston, Texas called Tri State Distributors. Back in March, Xu and his wife, Jennifer, met Ed at the Starbucks in the Bangkok airport. Xu promised he could deliver orders of 100,000 pills if Ed gave him time to prepare. One month after that meeting, Xu shipped $5720 worth of drug samples, including 130 boxes of Zyprexa, the Eli Lilly drug for bipolar disorder, to Tri State's headquarters in a bleak office park a short drive from George Bush Intercontinental Airport. If all went according to plan, these drugs would end up on pharmacy shelves where the biggest profits await.

Then, the email arrived. It was probably the first significant stumbling block in what was so far Xu's flawless career. "One of my customers called," Ed wrote in a message to, "and said there is a recall of Zyprexa in Europe with the same lot number. I am trying to find out more on the Internet. Have you heard anything? We will cancel the Zyprexa order until we find out the problem lot number."

That day, the United Kingdom's drug agency had pulled the drug from pharmacy shelves after a tip from a wholesaler. Analysis revealed that the pills contained just 75% of the active ingredient.ᅠThe agency later recalled two other drugs: the Sanofi-Aventis anticlotting medication, Plavix, and the AstraZeneca prostate cancer medication Casodex. Xu had given Ed both medicines, which would turn out to be subpotent and contain high levels of impurities. They were counterfeits.

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