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14 November, 2005

Inhuman scam

The BBC reports the startling story that counterfeiters are threatening the lives of millions just for a quick profit.

Anti-malaria medications based on compounds from the Chinese plant Artemesinin are the only cheap medicines to which the most deadly malaria parasite has not developed resistance. Fake medicines containing only enough of the active ingredient to fool basic verification tests provide insufficient doses to kill the malaria parasite, but enough for it to develop resistance to the medication itself – reverse inoculation, in effect.

How could people even consider doing this? Can there be a fundamental lack of understanding of the consequences? To me, this total disregard for literally millions of lives is utterly inconceivable. It's so despicable as to be depressing.

I can't think of a way to prevent it. Enforcement rarely works: consider the world trade in recreational drugs. One solution would be for the pharmaceutical companies to drop the price of the real medication to a level at which counterfeiting simply isn't profitable, but that's hardly in the interests of the companies.

This could be the setting and backstory of any cyberpunk novel, socio-technological divide having been triggered by a pandemic ('post-apocalyptic' is more subtle in the post-Cold War era!), but it's real, and very, very serious. As Dr Facundo Fernandez of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who discovered the new counterfeiting technique two months ago, said: "This is no different from plain murder."

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