Police in Kaifeng, in Henan province, have detained 114 people and seized fake medicines worth 190 million yuan (HK$232 million), Xinhua reported yesterday.
In all, 6,500 vials of counterfeit drugs were found to have been repackaged to look like bona fide medication from more than a dozen licensed drug makers, both Chinese and foreign.
News of the haul coincided with a visit to China by Dara Corrigan, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs with the US Food and Drug Administration, to discuss drug safety.
China has become a major supplier to the US market. Statistics from the Chamber of Commerce in Beijing show that 420 tonnes of products containing active pharmaceutical ingredients were exported from China in the first eight months of the year, earning their suppliers US$14.8 billion - up 28.8 per cent, year on year. The US was the second-largest importer, accounting for 13.4 of the market.
However, China's growing role in producing medicines has sparked concerns following a string of scandals involving fake, adulterated and otherwise unsafe drugs - especially given the thriving market in mail-order medication.
In 2006, cold syrup made with glycerin and shipped from China to Panama led to more than 100 confirmed deaths because the glycerin that Chinese companies used was found to be contaminated with poisonous diethylene glycol.
In another incident, in September last year, police in Laibin, Guangxi province, arrested eight people in connection with a shoddy rabies vaccine that was confiscated from 13 clinics in the city, after a five-year-old boy died from it in December 2009.
In February this year, lawmakers revised the criminal code specifically to target counterfeiters.
According to Zhang Yunzhang, a Beijing-based criminal lawyer, courts are no longer required to substantiate claims that counterfeit medications have caused damage to health when sentencing those convicted.
The revised law, he said, also removed a cap on the fines that can be levied in addition to sentences of imprisonment or death.
The State Food and Drug Administration has also started clamping down on the fake-drug industry, including those selling substandard drugs online.
Kaifeng police said they made the bust after a woman was caught substituting fake drugs for real ones at pharmacies. She would go behind the counter and switch the drugs while attempting also to sell fake drugs to pharmacists. She was sentenced in August to 10 months in jail.
The medicines she possessed were later found to be very sophisticated counterfeits that she couldn't have produced alone. That prompted authorities to expand their investigation, which led to the 114 detentions. Investigations into the counterfeit ring are continuing.
The number of websites selling illegal and counterfeit medication which were taken down in February following a British investigation