Though China is increasingly becoming the most visible and active foreign presence on the African continent, there is a downside, as revealed by a recent expose in the UK’s The Guardian: As many as a third of the malaria drugs in countries like Uganda and Tanzania are fake or substandard—putting the health of millions at risk—with most of them believed to originate in China and India.
The Guardian report says the drugs look identical to real ones, and the fake ones can only be identified with lab testing. In addition to the malaria drugs, analysis of antibiotics and contraceptives have also turned up fakes. The article says some pills contain no active ingredients, some are partial strength and some the wrong formulation entirely.
According to the Guardian, the fake medications have led to deaths, prolonged illness and increased drug resistance in areas of east Africa.
In response to the Guardian article, China has denied the allegations—but a foreign ministry spokeswoman said through Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, that foreign traders should “procure medicines from legitimate companies through standardized channels.” That sounds like a tacit acknowledgement that the counterfeiting is going on.
“Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily press briefing that the accusations are unfounded, noting that co-operation between the Chinese government and African countries has played an important role in improving the healthcare environment for people in Africa,” Xinhua reported on Thursday night.
China is now Africa’s largest trade partner, with its tentacles reaching into many sectors of African life. Earlier this month, China’s largest English newspaper, China Daily, launched an African edition, continuing a trend of Chinese media expansion into the continent. The trend follows increasingly strong trade partnerships between China and Africa’s fast developing nations. Weekly editions of China Daily will be published in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. The stat-run paper joins fellow Chinese news outlets China Central Television and Xinhua in the leap to Africa.
“The relationship between China and the African continent is one of the most significant relationships in the world today,” China Daily publisher and editor-in-chief, Zhu Ling told the BBC. “It is growing and complex and not always understood… We hope to set that straight.”
CCTV Africa also launched out of Kenya earlier this year, with Xinhua providing radio service alongside television and print coverage. Xinhua also launched a partnership with a Kenyan mobile firm Safaricom to provide news service by way of mobile devices.
China has spent much of the year advocating its investments in China, promising to help aid in developing infrastructure and trade. The communist republic has become Africa’s largest trading partner, but some analysts believe that the rapidly growing relationship between the two could make Africa too dependent.
The Guardian report on the fake drugs comes as the Sundance Film Festival’s hottest documentary is a movie, titled Fire In Blood, from director Dylan Mohan Gray, focusing on how in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Western governments and pharmaceutical companies blocked low-cost antiretroviral drugs from reaching AIDS-stricken Africa, causing 10 million or more unnecessary deaths.
Apart from the lives lost because of the fake drugs, there are additional concerns about drug resistance building in east Africa.
“It’s a crisis any time someone dies,” Nick White, who chairs the Wellcome Trust’s south-east Asia major overseas programmes and the WorldWide Antimalarial Resistance Network (Wwarn). “It’s a massive problem that people have simply ignored. It’s not like a boil that’s beginning to burst because it’s been a problem for a long time. What has happened is we are beginning to recognize it more.”
Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the US Council on Foreign Relations, told the Guardian: “Nobody has a head count – or a body count – on numbers of Africans that have died as a result. But China’s role certainly has been dreadful.”