More than £6.5 million worth of counterfeit and unlicensed medicines has been seized across the globe as part of a week-long international crackdown on the illicit internet trade in pharmaceuticals.
Operation Pangea V ran between 25 September and 2 October and resulted in 79 people being arrested worldwide. It also saw approximately 18,000 illegal online pharmacy websites being shut down through domain name or payment facility removal. The operation is the largest internet-targeting enforcement action of its kind with 100 countries participating in this year’s event.
Internationally, preliminary results show that more than 133,000 packages were inspected by regulators and customs officials resulting in the seizure of over 3.7 million doses of unlicensed and counterfeit pills.
Coordinated by INTERPOL and carried out with the assistance of police, customs and national medicines regulators, the operation targeted the four main elements misused in the illegal website trade – the drugs supplier, internet infrastructure, the electronic payment system and the mail delivery service.
In the United Kingdom, enforcement officers from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), with assistance from local police, arrested two people and raided ten addresses in connection with the illegal internet supply of medicines. Additionally, eight computers were seized as well as financial correspondence.
In conjunction with the Border Force, the MHRA seized more than 2.3 million doses of unlicensed medicine worth approximately £3.8 million, including 68,000 doses of counterfeit pills.
The MHRA is also working with the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) Central eCrime Unit (PCeU) and international partners to tackle spam emails received by people advertising unlicensed and counterfeit medicines. These spam emails come from affiliate pharmacy networks that are run by organised crime groups. The MHRA and the PCeU have joined forces with Microsoft, MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, INTERPOL, Irish Medicines Board, US Department of Homeland Security, LegitScript and the US FDA and FBI to tackle the internet infrastructure that facilitates this criminality by targeting seven of the largest spam networks aiming to have the websites shut down and payment facility removal. This is ground-breaking work and may lead to significant in-roads in tackling criminality on the internet.
MHRA Acting Head of Enforcement, Nimo Ahmed, said: “This week we have recovered a range of medicines being supplied without prescriptions and stored in unacceptable conditions by people who are not qualified to dispense medicines.
“When you buy medicines from an unregulated source you don’t know what you’re getting, where it came from or if it’s safe to take. The dose could be too high or too low, or the ingredients could break down incorrectly in the body which makes the medicine ineffective.
“Illegal suppliers do not adhere to quality control or standards that are required in the licensed trade. If people could see the filthy conditions some of these medicines are being made, stored and transported in, they certainly wouldn’t touch them.
“The bottom line is that there are no quick fixes when it comes to your health. Take the time to see your GP to identify the cause of your symptoms. You are far more likely to get better faster if you are on the correct course of prescribed medication.”
Working alongside the MHRA, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) Police Central eCrime Unit (PCeU) also took action to combat those profiting from the unlawful sale and distribution of pharmaceuticals online.
More than 384 generic top level domains and sub domains have been suspended on the UK domain tree and a further 120 domain names are being shut down.
Detective Superintendent Charlie McMurdie, head of the Police Central e-Crime Unit said, "We are pleased to have contributed, with partners, to this operation. Together we have proactively prevented harm to victims by disrupting the infrastructure criminals use to illegally sell pharmaceuticals online.
"This type of crime causes significant harm to the UK economy, generating millions of pounds of criminal profit. The MHRA's International Internet Week of Action continues to form part of our wider remit to protect people from internet-facilitated crime."
Border Force Senior Operations Manager - Coventry International Hub, Dave Bagnall, said, “The haul detected by our officers during this week of action makes it clear just how seriously we take the smuggling of fake and unlicensed medicines.
“Smugglers are only out to make a profit. These goods are often dangerous and the proceeds can be used to fund serious organised crime.”
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Neal Patel, said: “It is hugely worrying that prescription medicines are available from illicit websites. This is a serious patient safety issue.
“Not only is supplying Prescription Only Medicines without a prescription illegal, it means that the user has no information about the ingredients, dosage instructions, or potential side effects, so patients would not be receiving proper healthcare advice.
“We would urge the public if they wish to buy medicines online to always check that they are dealing with a genuine pharmacy.”
If someone suspects their medicine may be counterfeit, contact the MHRA’s designated 24-hour anti-counterfeiting hotline on 020 3080 6701 or email@example.com
Coverage on ITN news of online medicines raid by the MHRA
Notes to Editor
1. Operation Pangea is an international initiative to target the illegal internet trade in pharmaceutical products. It was instigated by the MHRA in April 2006 and started as the UK Internet Day of Action (IDA). In 2008 this was broadened to an International Day of Action (Op Pangea I) involving eight countries. 2009 saw the initiative expand to an International Week of Action (Op Pangea II) involving 25 countries co-ordinated by INTERPOL. There were 45 countries that participated in the 2010 operation, 85 in 2011 and 100 in this year’s operation.
2. The operation is the largest internet based enforcement action of its kind to date and involved INTERPOL, the World Customs Organisation (WCO), the Permanent Forum of International Pharmaceutical Crime (PFIPC) and the Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers (HMA WGEO) and the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP).
3. The types of medicines the MHRA found included those for asthma, narcolepsy, breast cancer, cholesterol reduction, contact lenses, skin conditions, antibiotics, anti-histamines, anti-malarial, arthritis, erectile dysfunction, weight-loss, analgesic/pain relief, hair-loss, human growth hormone, anabolic steroids, anti-depressants, skin-lightening creams, sedatives, stomach ulcers and eye medicines.
4. People should take prescription only medicine in consultation with their GP or other healthcare professionals. These people have access to patient health records and can take into account the risks and benefits associated with every medicine as well as providing ongoing monitoring of the treatment.
5. Further information about purchasing medicines safely online can be found at the following MHRA website link: Counterfeit medicines
6. The General Pharmaceutical Council operates an internet pharmacy logo to help the public identify if a website is being operated by a bona fide pharmacy in Great Britain.
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 judgements 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, to enable us to investigate and take any necessary action.