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Press release: International operation combats the online supply of counterfeit and unlicensed medicines

Press release

Date: Thursday 19 November 2009
Time: 16:30
Contact: Press Office 020 3080 7651/3166
or press.office@mhra.gsi.gov.uk
Out-of-hours 07770 446 189

An international week of action targeting the online sale of counterfeit and illicit medicines has highlighted the dangers of buying such medicines online.

Due to an ever-increasing number of websites supplying dangerous and illegal medicines, INTERPOL and the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT) have this week co-ordinated 24 countries to launch Operation Pangea II.

National medicines regulators, police and customs have extensively collaborated in this global campaign.

The operation focused on the three principle components of an illegal website, the Internet Service Provider (ISP), payment systems and the delivery service.

Internationally, more than 16,000 packages were inspected by regulators and customs resulting in the seizure of nearly 167,000 illicit and counterfeit pills. During the operation, Internet monitoring revealed 751 websites to be engaged in illegal activity including offering controlled or prescription only drugs.

The public will be advised through global awareness campaigns that purchasing medicines from unregulated websites significantly increases the risks of obtaining counterfeit, sub-standard and dangerous products.

In the United Kingdom, enforcement officers from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) raided suspected premises in London, Chelmsford, Romford, Bristol, Brighton, Stoke-on-Trent, Leicester and Shrewsbury.

Three arrests were made, six websites have been closed down and £300,000 worth of illicit medicines were seized, as well as quantities of controlled drugs.

The types of medicines the MHRA found included those for erectile dysfunction, hair loss, contraception, weight loss, pain relief, asthma, local anaesthesia and steroids.

MHRA Head of Enforcement, Mick Deats, said that what often looked like a professional online pharmacy would turn out to be an illicit website selling fake or illegal medication.

“This week’s operation has evolved from previously successful Internet Days of Action carried out by the MHRA.

"This week we have recovered a range of different medicines that were being supplied with no prescription and stored in unacceptable conditions by persons unqualified to dispense medicines."

Mr Deats said illegal suppliers might be good at setting up a website but that doesn’t make them a pharmacist.

“These websites often look like the real deal, but if they don’t carry the green cross logo of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB) and have a ‘bricks and mortar’ address, then they are often dealing illegally.

“The dangers of purchasing medicines from unregulated websites are that you just don’t know what you are taking,” he said. “The dosages could be either too high or too low, contain no pharmaceutical ingredient or a totally different ingredient to that stated.

“Illegal suppliers have no quality control or standards to abide by and people who purchase medicine from these sources will never know where the tablets they are putting in their mouths have actually originated or what they contain.

“If customers could see the filthy conditions in which some of these medicines were being transported, stored and handled, they wouldn’t touch them,” he added.

Mr Deats said criminals behind illegal internet pharmacies often enjoyed lavish lifestyles on the profits made by selling counterfeit and unlicensed drugs.

“People dealing in these types of businesses are criminals, often at the much higher end of the pay scale,” he said. “They substantially benefit financially from this unlawful trade.

“They are not healthcare professionals; in fact, they are not professional in any way shape or form. They are simply financially motivated criminals living a life of luxury at the expense of people’s health.

“This international operation is the only way to deal with an International problem and is a great example of the collaboration needed to tackle this type of crime. We will continue to use every power at our disposal to take action against those engaged in this illicit activity and confiscate the proceeds of their crimes.

“If you feel that your medicine may be counterfeit, contact the MHRA’s dedicated 24 hour anti-counterfeiting hotline on 020 7084 2701 or by email to counterfeit@mhra.gsi.gov.uk.”

Notes to Editor

  1. In the UK, during the international Internet week of action, ten websites were investigated, 15 computers seized as well as mailing equipment. The MHRA, working with the UK Border Agency (UKBA), seized 147,000 tablets at Coventry Postal Hub.
  2. This initiative began at the MHRA in April 2006. It started as the UK Internet Day of Action (IDA). There have been five IDAs to date. It became the International Internet Day of Action in Nov 2008, with eight countries participating (co-ordinated by INTERPOL).
  3. Online pharmacies supply a massive range of medicines from weight and hair loss tablets, to anti-depressants, powerful painkillers and even anabolic steroids.
  4. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB) has introduced an internet pharmacy logo to help the public identify if a website is being operated by a bona fide pharmacy in Great Britain. More information is available at www.internetpharmacylogo.org (external link)
  5. Further information about how the MHRA tackles counterfeit medicines and devices can be found at the following MHRA website link:
  6. Counterfeit medicines and devices
  7. The MHRA is the government agency responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work, and are acceptably safe. No product is risk-free. Underpinning all our work lie robust and fact-based judgments to ensure that the benefits to patients and the public justify the risks. We keep watch over medicines and devices, and take any necessary action to protect the public promptly if there is a problem. We encourage everyone – the public and healthcare professionals as well as the industry – to tell us about any problems with a medicine or medical device, so that we can investigate and take any necessary action. www.mhra.gov.uk
Page last modified: 19 November 2009