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Fake Viagra, and more, in Bangkok

Pharmo-piracy sweeps Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia. It's a deadly problem.

Don't believe every baggy full of little blue pills that you see. (Eddie Cheng/Reuters)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Little is real in Patpong, a glowing bazaar and sex district here in Bangkok. The Gucci is fake, the DVDs are pirated and the go-go girls tell every man he’s handsome.

Drugs too are sold here openly. Not speed or cocaine, but Viagra — or at least diamond-shaped, blue pills that resemble the real thing. After dark, one aging female vendor displays dingy Viagra boxes at her stall to attract customers.

When a man shows interest, she dispatches a teenage runner to retrieve the pills from a secret location nearby. The price: $6 per tablet, $4 cheaper than the average U.S. cost.

“You want it?” asks the runner. “It’s a good price.”

It’s likely too good to be true. Counterfeit pharmaceuticals are widespread in Southeast Asia, sold for cheap on the street or in rural mom-and-pop markets.

Though Viagra is one of the most common knock-offs, it’s much less worrisome than fake meds to fight malaria, tuberculosis and even HIV. They often contain little or no active ingredient. The result: Sickness, fatalities and a host of drug-resistant viruses.

“It might contain the correct active ingredient, but the wrong dose. Or it might contain nothing at all,” said Clemence Gautier, consultant at the Bangkok-based law firm Tilleke & Gibbins. The firm specializes in prosecuting counterfeiters for clients that include pharmaceutical firms Pfizer, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline.

Thai customs police, trained by Tilleke & Gibbins to spot fakes, often set aside boxes of seized goods for the attorneys to inspect and share with clients. Their stash amounts to 3,500-plus knock offs, many of which look astonishingly real.

Along with convincing bottles of Stolichnaya vodka, Casio calculators and even a working motorbike — all counterfeit — raids turn up a lot of fake medicine. The packages of “Throatsil” and faux-Viagra tablets stamped with the letters “VAG” are easy to spot. Many others aren’t.

“The counterfeiters are quite good at what they do,” Gautier says. “All the way down to the holograms on the box.”

The scope of counterfeit meds is difficult to gauge. But the World Health Organization has said that, in the worst-affected parts of Southeast Asia, as many as 30 percent of pharmaceuticals are lacking the stated active ingredient. This covers outright fakes, expired meds and even pills made improperly by well-meaning but barely regulated factories.

About 77 percent of bad meds are produced in China, according to GlaxoSmithKline. Just this week, a Chinese national was arrested in Bangkok with nearly $450,000 worth of Viagra knock-offs and sex toys, which are also illegal to buy or sell in Thailand.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/091020/fake-viagra-pharma-bangkok-patpong