Fake Drugs

A ‘no-deal’ Brexit will knock us out of the safest medicines network in the world.

Medicines are the most common medical intervention used across the UK and Europe. Unfortunately, falsified or fake medicines are entering global supply chains and have become a leading public health concern worldwide. It is, therefore, vital that there are systems in place to stop the manufacturing and trade of falsified medicines that may contain ingredients (including active ingredients) that are a non-pharmaceutical grade, at incorrect dosages or even contain no active substance. These counterfeit medicines are a leading threat to public health globally with seizures by authorities increasing substantially each year.

The UK is currently part of the Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD), an initiative to significantly reduce the exposure of patients/consumers to counterfeit medicines; however, with a ‘no-deal’ Brexit becoming a real possibility, NHS patients could become more exposed to the potentially life-threatening dangers of fake medicines than their European counterparts.

“In 2017, it was estimated that fake medicines cost healthcare systems $38.5m a year with $25m falsified medicines seized worldwide with an estimated value of $51m.”

Anne Gulland, Global Health Security Correspondent

“Last year (2018) the UK seized more than 1 million doses of falsified medicines worth in excess of £2million as part of Interpol’s Operation Pangea.”

Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)

How are patients currently protected in the EU?

On 1st July 2011, the EU adopted a new directive called the Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) whose aim is to significantly reduce the exposure of patients to counterfeit medicines. This pan-European directive introduced a range of safety measures to ensure that prescription medicines in the EU are genuine and that the buying and selling of these medicines are adequately controlled. The FMD provide coordinated, EU-wide measures based around 4 key pillars:


  1. Stricter regulations on the import of active substances
  2. Strengthened supply chain and regulations for wholesale distributors
  3. An EU-wide identifier to show legal online pharmacies
  4. Compulsory safety measures (i.e., unique identifiers and anti-tampering devices (ATD) on the outer packaging)


Introduction of additional safety features to the outer packaging of medicines is the biggest change within the FMD. This new directive came into effect on 9th February 2019 and requires that all bodies supplying medicines for human consumption include a unique two-dimension barcode, to verify and authenticate the product throughout the supply chain, and an ATD. Even though the new safety features are now a legal obligation throughout all EU/EAA states (except Greece and Italy), medicines without these safety features released prior to the 9th February can still be dispensed.


What happens in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit?

With billions of doses of medicines travelling through the EU, this new directive ensures that European patients will have the strongest protection from falsified medicines in the world. This world-first initiative will improve the security of the medicines supply chain across Europe, ensuring that patients can be confident that the medicines they are consuming are both authentic and safe. However, the MHRA indicated in December last year that in the case of a 'no-deal' Brexit, the UK will no longer participate in the FMD. Additionally, the UK will no longer be able to access the EU’s central data hub preventing pharmacies from uploading, verifying, and decommissioning the unique identifiers of any type of medicine. Unanswered questions also remain regarding the UK’s continued access to European databases such as the clinical trials database and system that flags medicine safety warnings.

“‘No deal’ is not in the interest of the NHS or its patients. Not being part of the safest medicines system in the world, one that the UK has helped design and build – and which provides protection against fake medicines – makes no sense. Being part of a system that keeps them safe is the minimum that UK patients should expect.”

Mike Thompson, Chief Executive of the ABPI

“A ‘no-deal’ Brexit would mean the biggest disintegration of the complex regulated medicines market in Europe.”

Laura Collister, BioIndustry Association

With the threat of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit becoming ever more real, the UK may no longer be part of the safest medicines system in the world, leaving NHS patients more exposed to the dangers of fake medicines than their European counterparts. In case of a no-deal, an alternative ‘national system’ similar to the FMD will need to be developed to ensure the protection of the UK patient population. Without any system in place, falsified medicines could continue to flood the UK market and put patient safety at risk.

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