Fighting against counterfeit medicines by suspending and blocking domain names

Every year, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) collects a list of the most notorious online and physical counterfeit spots that are outside US borders. (Special 301 Out-of-Cycle Review of Notorious Markets). For example, the 2017 report mentions, inter alia, the following marketplaces: DHGhate.com (China), Indiamart.com (India), Taobao.com (China), Vkontakte.com (Russia), and the shopping mall called “Pacific Mall” in Markham, Ontario, Canada (iptwins.com, 1st Oct. 2018). As part of the 2018  Comment Request from the USTRASOP Global shared its experience in a letter to the USTR on October 2, 2018.
ASOP Global is a non-profit organization whose goal is to ensure safe access to safe medicines. It operates in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Latin America and Asia (buysaferx.pharmacy). In its letter to the USTR, ASOP Global insists strongly on one point: the fight against illegal pharmacies and “drugs” is “fundamentally a public health issue; not one of intellectual property rights“. In other words, counterfeiting is only one part of the illegal “medicines” market.
A huge work must be done. ASOP Global recalls some statistical data, including the following:
  • “At any one time there are 35,000 – 45,000 active online pharmacies (LegitScript); 
  • 96% of websites offering to sell drugs are illegitimate and operating in violation of applicable U.S. laws and pharmacy practice standards (National Association of Boards of Pharmacy); 
  • The Internet is the world’s largest marketplace for counterfeit drugs as 50% of the prescription medicines sold online by websites that hide their physical address are considered substandard or falsified (World Health Organization); 
  • Every month, approximately six hundred new illegal online pharmacy sites go live (LegitScript); 
  • A February 2018 study by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy found that out of 100 online pharmacy websites surveyed: o 100% were operating illegally; 
  • 98% were selling Rx drugs without a valid prescription; 
  • 54% offered controlled substances; and 
  • 40% offered one or more drugs frequently counterfeited with fentanyl. 
  • 33% of surveyed consumers have previously purchased prescription medications from an online pharmacy website for themselves or someone under their care, and 55% have or would consider buying medicine online. (ASOP Global); 
  • In a two week period there were over 45,000 tweets that promoted the purchase and non-medical use of prescription drugs through an actively marketed illegal online pharmacy (Timothy Mackey, University of California San Diego); and 
  • Nearly 91% of the first search result across three major search engines led users to an illegal online pharmacy selling controlled substances such as prescription opioids, often without a valid prescription (Garth Bruen, Fischer College).”
ASOP Global intends to address the problem of illegal drugs at the domain name system level. The issue of domain names and public order through the prism of the health industry is not new. It was raised at the time new gTLDs proposals were being discussed (.doctor, .health, .hospital, .med, .medical, .pharmacy). ASOP Global points to so-called “rogue” domain name registrars, which knowingly grant and maintain domain names to illegal pharmacies. It claims that nothing in the Registrar Accreditation Agreement prohibits the registrars to suspend or lock a domain name which is used for illegal activities. ASOP Global regrets that some registrars do not take its grievances seriously. Such a lack of cooperation can be explained by the figures.
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Source: LegitScript memo to ASOP Global on Problematic Registrars and “Registrar Clustering Data”; September 24, 2018 / *Per LegitScript, 2,700 additional rogue internet pharmacies using .рф, .ru, or .su ccTLDs are excluded from this figure.
Indeed, ASOP Global argues that 45% of dishonest Internet pharmacies have taken root in only 10 registrars, hence the reluctance that some might have to consider suspension or locking measures. These considerations lead ASOP Global to designate the above registrars in the 2018 Special 301 Out-of-Cycle Review of Notorious Markets. 

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