Originally published in MedPage Today
by Michael Smith, MedPage Today North American Correspondent
The Internet can be a great source of information about the pandemic H1N1 flu, but it’s also the mother lode of swine flu scams, the FDA is warning.
In a news release, the agency said it recently purchased and analyzed several products that purported to be oseltamivir (Tamiflu), one of two antiviral drugs thought to be effective against the pandemic flu.
“One of the orders, which arrived in an unmarked envelope with a postmark from India, consisted of unlabeled, white tablets taped between two pieces of paper,” the agency said.
Analysis showed the tablets contained talc and acetaminophen, but no oseltamivir, the FDA said. The Web site disappeared shortly after the order was placed.
The agency said it bought four similarly advertised products from other Web sites. These did contain some oseltamivir, but were not approved for use in the U.S.
Several Web merchants did not require a prescription, and none of the drugs arrived quickly enough to treat someone infected with the pandemic flu or with an immediate exposure to the virus.
“Products that are offered for sale online with claims to diagnose, prevent, mitigate, treat, or cure the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus must be carefully evaluated,” Margaret Hamburg, M.D., the agency’s commissioner, said in a statement.
“Medicines purchased from Web sites operating outside the law put consumers at increased risk due to a higher potential that the products will be counterfeit, impure, contaminated, or have too little or too much of the active ingredient,” she added.
The agency recommended that online shoppers buy only FDA-approved products from licensed pharmacies located in the U.S. so they know what they’re getting.
“Patients who buy prescription drugs from Web sites operating outside the law are at increased risk of suffering life-threatening adverse events,” the agency said. Those include side effects, dangerous drug interactions, contaminated drugs, and impure or unknown ingredients.
Phony oseltamivir is not the only sham product being marketed direct to consumers — herbal teas, surgical masks, N95 masks, test kits, and a host of other products are easily found on the Internet.
Indeed, searching for H1N1 on the shopping site alibaba.com turned up 1,737 products, while a search for Tamiflu turned up 29.
Oddly, among the various versions of Tamiflu offered for sale, at least one company was selling star aniseed, a spice that the advertisement said could be used to make the drug.
According to a fact sheet from The Roche Group, which manufactures oseltamivir, star anise (grown largely in China and Vietnam) is the main source of the shikimic acid used in making the drug.