Fighting counterfeit medicines: With the help of funding from EMD, the Global Pharma Health Fund donates mobile compact mini-laboratories to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin AmericaStage Image

Fighting counterfeit medicines: With the help of funding from EMD, the Global Pharma Health Fund donates mobile compact mini-laboratories to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America

© Plainpicture

Tracking down counterfeiters with the minilab

A suitcase that saves lives




Millions of people with malaria, tuberculosis, and other serious diseases depend on life-saving medicines. The fact is, however, that many of them often ingest only flour, sugar, or even sawdust when they take their “medicine” — without even knowing it. In other words, the drugs often contain few or absolutely no active ingredients. A suitcase-sized mini-laboratory can help identify fake drugs.

  • Frank Gotthardt, Head of Public Affairs at EMD
  • Frank Gotthardt, Head of Public Affairs at EMD
    © EMD

    Sometimes help comes in a simple form — in this case two family-sized suitcases, together weighing around 40 kilograms and equipped with everything it takes to test medicines, even under difficult conditions in an African village.

    Frank Gotthardt, Head of Public Affairs at EMD, lays out the contents of the mini-laboratory on a table: “This ‘Minlab’ contains everything you need to check the identity and purity of the most important pharmaceutical active ingredients — everything from anti-malaria drugs to antibiotics and analgesics and antipyretics,” he says.

    Comparison samples of active ingredients are held in 57 small tubes in the kit, which also includes practical items like an egg timer for keeping reaction times exact, a small iron for drying out thin-layer plates, and funnels, Bunsen burners, and spare batteries. Most importantly for working in an environment with underdeveloped infrastructure, the mobile mini-laboratory does not require an external energy source, and tests with it can be carried out using just normal drinking water.

    “The minilab has a deterrent effect on counterfeiters.“

    Frank Gotthardt
    Head of Public Affairs at EMD

    A good idea spreads around the world

    The mobile Minilab came on the scene back in 1998, and it has been a success ever since. It was developed by the Global Pharma Health Fund (GPHF), which is based in Frankfurt am Main. The GPHF is a health initiative dedicated to fighting counterfeit medicines.

    More than 500 Minilabs, which are funded exclusively by EMD, have been delivered to 83 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to date. “We handed over the 500th Minilab in June to the Ministry of Health in Ghana, and we were joined at the ceremony by soccer player Gerald Asamoah,” says Gotthardt, who is also the Chairman of the GPHF. The donation to Ghana was preceded by delivery of five labs each to the Ministers of Health in Zambia and Tanzania in February 2012. The units were handed over by Karl-Ludwig Kley, Chairman of the EMD Executive Board.

    Race against the counterfeiters

    Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) demonstrate just how important the battle against medicine counterfeiting is, as the WHO estimates that one out of every three to ten medicines in developing countries is fake. Business is booming for counterfeiters. Their “customers“ are the billions of people living in countries whose health care systems are underdeveloped and whose governments do not monitor or test medicines. In these places, medicines are not sold in pharmacies but instead via shady channels like “herbal shops” and other dubious markets.

    Rapid and timely testing of medicines is quite rare in such countries. Moreover, when you have to wait several weeks for a test result, it might already be too late. Pneumonia can be fatal if treated using an incorrect dose of antibiotics. “The Minilab acts as a deterrent to counterfeiters,” says Gotthardt. “We know from experience that incidences of pharmaceutical counterfeiting decline when Minilabs are used on a broad scale.”

    The GPHF also trains medical personnel in areas where the Minilab is used

    The GPHF also trains medical personnel in areas where the Minilab is used

    © EMD

  • Richard Jähnke of the Global Pharma Health Fund (GPHF)
  • Richard Jähnke of the Global Pharma Health Fund (GPHF)
    © GPHF

    40-kilo jewel

    Richard Jähnke, who holds a doctorate in pharmacy and is project manager for the Global Pharma Health Fund, was a member of the team that developed the Minilab from the very beginning. Jähnke is justifiably proud of this — even euphoric: “We created a real jewel,” he says.

    The expertise of the Minilab specialists is in great demand — from major international aid organizations as well, like the United States Agency for International Development. “We occupy a very important niche here,” Jähnke explains. “We’re technical experts who contribute our practical experience, and our cooperation with partners on this level has been very good.” The GPHF provides both hardware and knowledge here, and also conducts onsite training sessions with local workers.

    Mobile lifesaver



  • The inside of a MinilabEnlarge
  • The cases contain a beaker and various pipettes...Enlarge
  • ...microcapillary tubes that ensure precise dosages of liquid samples...Enlarge
  • ...laboratory glasses of various sizes for preparing samples...Enlarge
  • …replacement batteries, a small iron, and  the thin-layer chromatography plates to which sample solutions are applied...Enlarge
  • ...filter paper, a universal AC power adapter, and UV lamps, which are used to evaluate the samples...Enlarge
  • …various tools like a vernier caliper and a pestle, which is used to crush pills for analysis...Enlarge
  • …and two manuals for ensuring proper use of the MinilabEnlarge

    A total of 95 percent of the Minilabs are sold to governmental monitoring agencies, which is exactly what the WHO wants to see. “That is because such an approach leads government agencies to begin carrying out quality checks and view drug monitoring as their responsibility,” says Jähnke. Nevertheless, as a relatively small non-governmental organization, the GPHF is simply too minor a player on the world stage to get involved everywhere.  

    Gotthardt regrets this: “Unfortunately, we do not get any automatic feedback about counterfeit medicines, which is in part due to the fact that the infrastructure at the small aid organizations is insufficient for such a process. That is why we do not have any reliable statistics on pill counterfeiting and its consequences.” One of the GPHF’s medium-term goals in this regard is therefore to establish a well functioning communication and reporting system linking it with governmental authorities and aid organizations.

    Minilabs for Zambia and Tanzania



  • Karl-Ludwig Kley, Chairman of the EMD Executive Board, hands over one of five Minilabs to Zambia´s Minister of Health, Joseph KasondeEnlarge
  • Five mobile Minilabs were also donated to Tanzania: The country´s Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Haji Hussein Mponda, accepts a Minilab from Karl-Ludwig KleyEnlarge

    A step ahead of the counterfeiters




    Jähnke never runs out of work to do: New active pharmaceutical ingredients that might conceivably be counterfeited are constantly hitting the market, for example. As a result, Jähnke continually has to develop new methods of analysis and update the Minilab’s instruction manual, which is actually the heart of the unit.

    Between five and seven new analyses will have to be added in 2012 alone, and over the last three years, the number of substances that can be analyzed with the Minilab has increased from 40 to 57. It is a race against the criminals — and one can only hope that the Minilab maintains a lead by being compact, easy to use — and just plain smarter.

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