MONDAY, April 7, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- A fast method to detect fake Tamiflu, the mainstay medication for preventing and treating bird flu, has been developed to stop counterfeiters trying to make money off the demand for antivirals that fight the deadly disease.
Chemists in Georgia are scheduled to describe how Desorption Electrospray Ionization Mass Spectrometry (DESI-MS) can determine the authenticity of large batches of Tamiflu up to 20 times faster than conventional methods during a presentation Monday at the American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans.
"It's a one-step process that doesn't require any extensive sample preparation," presenter Dr. Facundo M. Fernandez, of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, said in a prepared statement.
DESI-MS yields sample results in less than one minute. The "gold standard" for analysis uses high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), a powerful method that can take up to an hour, he said.
"This method is really targeted at screening large amounts of products" that might be expected during a pandemic of influenza, Fernandez added. "In case of a crisis, you wouldn't be able to wait an hour per sample. You'd want to screen hundreds of samples per day," he said.
When fears of a global epidemic of avian influenza first emerged in 2005, worried consumers in the United States and other countries began to horde Tamiflu, seeking prescriptions from physicians and purchasing the medication from online pharmacies.
In 2007, 86 confirmed human cases of bird flu occurred in the world, according to the World Health Organization, with 59 cases resulting in death.
Tamiflu's demand and high cost -- $6.50 a pill -- have made it a preferred target for fakes, Fernandez noted, and counterfeits have already surfaced in Chicago, San Francisco and other areas.
"The penalties for counterfeiting pharmaceuticals are much lower than for trafficking illegal drugs like cocaine," Fernandez said. "Many of the operations focused on making illegal drugs are shifting to counterfeiting drugs because of the low penalties and high profits."
Fernandez tested DESI-MS's effectiveness by collecting different Tamiflu samples from online pharmacies and found all of them to contain the active ingredient. However, he warned that customers who purchase online should use extra caution.
Although some online pharmacies are certified, Fernandez said people usually look for low prices instead. "What you get online can be pretty much anything," he said. "It's very easy for the counterfeiter to bypass the system that's in place to protect the consumer. And it's very easy for the consumer to get medications."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about avian flu.