Science Detectives and the Giant Malaria Drug Bust

It's one of the coolest science detective stories in recent memory. The ingredients of this tale include 240,000 blisterpacks of fake malaria drugs, a tiny amount of flower pollen, and forensic palynology. A gang selling fake malaria drugs all across Asia had made millions (killing lots of people in the process), and covered their tracks quite efficiently. But there was one thing they hadn't bargained for. The air around their pill-fabrication plant had left an indelible mark on their products.

INTERPOL had been trying to bust the gang for years, and finally brought in a group of scientists who analyze pollen — forensic polynologists. They tested minute samples of pollen in the counterfeit pills, and discovered the pollen was very specific to a certain region in China.

A study released today in PLoS Medicine explains:

The pollen evidence suggested that at least some of the counterfeit [malaria drug] artesunate came from southern China, and this was supported by examination of the mineral calcite, found in some of the samples . . . Armed with these findings by INTERPOL, Chinese authorities arrested a suspect in China's Yunnan Province in 2006. He is alleged to have traded 240,000 blisterpacks of counterfeit artesunate, enough to "treat" almost a quarter of a million adults with a medicine with no activity against a potentially fatal disease. Whilst the Chinese authorities were able to seize 24,000 of these packs, the remainder are alleged to have been sold at crossings on the border of Yunnan and Myanmar (Burma), accounting for almost a half of all blisterpacks of artesunate sold to the region.
So some of these fake pills are still at large, but the next counterfeit pill gang may have a much harder time keeping their whereabouts secret. Can't wait for this technique to be used on all those scammers selling fake viagra online.

A Collaborative Epidemiological Investigation [PLoS Medicine]