“Grave Island” by Andrew Smyth: the research behind the thriller

Grave Island by Andrew Smyth is out today, 28th June

(Bloodhound Books)

In this guest post, the author, Andrew Smyth, shares his research process with us.
But first… the blurb:

When Philip Hennessey is thrown out of army intelligence after evidence is fabricated against him, his ex-wife’s school friend asks him to investigate the sudden death of her father, who she thinks has been murdered. 

Philip soon discovers a far larger problem: a lethal trade in the manufacture and distribution of counterfeit drugs. 

Using his contacts within the intelligence agencies, he follows the trail across the world, chasing counterfeit vaccines that could kill thousands.

Pitted against an international conspiracy, can Philip prevent the fake medicines from getting through, and who can he really trust?

Writing is a much more labor intensive job than many readers might suspect.  Authors of all genres put a lot of research into the novels that they produce.  Andrew Smyth, the author of “Grave Island“,  has generously written a guest post to explain his research process. Take it away Andrew…

Researching plots takes the writer up many blind alleys so when I started looking into the pharmaceutical industry, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. The healthcare industry world-wide is huge and the researcher doesn’t have to look far to find murky goings-on. On my website, I describe how a cover-up by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) cost them $2.4 billion when one of their plants was discovered making contaminated pharmaceuticals, while in 2009 Pfizer paid out a record fine of $2.3 billion.

But there was a snag. Although these cases involved cover-ups, no one would seriously believe that a publicly-quoted pharmaceutical company would deliberately set out to adulterate their products. (Despite looking for a big company as the “baddie”, I don’t really believe in conspiracy theories.) But I was reluctant to abandon the idea and I thought about it some more. A pharmaceutical company doesn’t set out deliberately to make fake drugs, but a criminal organisation might.

So I started to look into the world of counterfeit drugs but soon discovered that the pharmaceutical companies, although committed to stamping out fakes, don’t like to give publicity to the fact that some drugs might not be what they seem. The general feeling appeared to be that it would undermine confidence in the market place if they gave too much emphasis to the problem.

The other problem in researching the subject is that once the medicine has been administered, it’s gone and there’s no way of telling whether it was full strength or just a variant on talcum powder. That means that all the research on the subject is limited.

The main source of information is from international agencies and what I found out from the World Health Organisation (WHO) absolutely staggered me. The WHO estimate the world market for fakes and substandard drugs is worth $30 billion annually, representing 15% of the market in developed countries. In the rest of the world, where detection is more difficult, the problem is even worse. The WHO suggests that one in ten drugs sold in Africa are “falsified or substandard” and result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands annually. Up to 72,000 deaths from childhood pneumonia can be attributed to substandard or fake drugs, while ineffective antimalarials kill over 100,000. This is an astonishing statistic, suggesting that fake drugs might account for almost as many deaths as the diseases they were supposed to be curing. But how to get it to the attention of the world? I thought if I based my thriller around counterfeit pharmaceuticals then it might get some attention.

The problem has gotten worse since drug manufacturing has moved from Europe and the United States to plants mainly in India and China. Supervision has become more difficult and the absence of oversight is one the main reasons why India’s pharmaceutical industry is so profitable. They export over $15 billion annually yet the WHO estimates that one in five are fakes. In fact, the profit margins can be so huge that Italian police estimate that criminal gangs make more money out of fake drugs than they do out of “traditional” drugs such as heroin. But the fakers aren’t stupid and they package their products so there’s no clue that they’re different. One investigator reported on a business which in one warehouse was turning out fake pills using 1950s technology, while next door they had a large, state-of-the-art machine, printing the packaging. Unless you open up the package and analyse the contents, how can you possibly know what’s actually inside?

And as things stand, you can’t. If you buy a Rolex watch for £100 you know it’s a fake, but when a fake medicine’s packaging is identical to the real thing, it’s impossible to tell. But that only tells part of the story because if the counterfeits contain only reduced amount of the essential active ingredients, they not only fail to help, but can make the situation worse by increasing drug resistance.

Charities such as the Gates Foundation estimates that 1.5 million children die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases and that part of the problem is the high cost of vaccines. This leads people to seek out cheaper alternatives which are often fakes with little or no active ingredients. Part of the Foundation’s efforts are in reducing the cost and making genuine vaccines more widely available. Micro-chipping is one method of testing authenticity and there is increasing use of hand-help analysis machines such as the Truscan, which features in my book.

But the fact remains that my research shows this to be a huge problem that needs addressing and I hope my book starts discussions of the issues involved.

Grave Island” is available now!

After graduating from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Andrew spent a couple of years attempting to break into the film industry. He then founded two highly successful design and construction companies, working both in the UK and the South of France, before turning his focus to his main interests: sailing and writing.

Andrew is the author of Caesar’s Passage, which was shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel award, and an Introduction to the Canal du Midi, which was the inspiration for Rick Steins’ TV series. He has also written extensively for yachting magazines, as well as writing and editing his own magazine, Cruising World. A keen yachtsman, he has sailed extensively through the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, often using his first-hand experience as locations in his books. His second novel, a thriller called Grave Island, is published by Bloodhound Books June 2018.

Andrew is married with two adult children and one and a half grandchildren.

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
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