Operation PANGEA XIV: campaign against counterfeit and illegally imported medicinal products

Authorities worldwide have been checking for criminal online sales of medicines in a coordinated operation


The week from 18 to 25 May saw a coordinated worldwide campaign against the illegal online trade in medicines. For years, this market has been dominated by erectile stimulants. Some 90% of the shipments confiscated by the Federal Customs Administration (FCA) and Swissmedic contained such products. Also seized were a number of other illegally imported prescription-only medicines that pose serious health risks.

Switzerland has for many years been participating in the PANGEA international week of action, which is coordinated by Interpol. This year, 55 countries took part actively. The aim of this operation, now conducted for the 14th time, was once again to combat illegal internet-based sales of medicinal products. In total, the international authorities scrutinised almost 120,000 websites and closed down 113,000 of them. Worldwide, some 9 million units of illegal and counterfeit medicinal products were seized.

In Switzerland, Swissmedic, the FCA and Antidoping Switzerland inspected 695 shipments at the Zurich-Mülligen postal sorting office. Half of them (346) were confiscated, as they contained illegal medicinal or doping products. Consignments from Ukraine, which often contained forgeries of the erectile stimulants Viagra and Cialis loomed large among them. Confiscated narcotics were reported to the cantonal authorities so that they could institute criminal proceedings.

Country of origin of the seized parcels
Countries of origin of the shipments confiscated in Switzerland during Operation PANGEA XIV

Illegal websites identified

During the PANGEA XIV exercise, Swissmedic and Antidoping Switzerland identified 120 illegal foreign websites that purported to be Swiss online pharmacies. The campaign revealed that 75 websites had been hacked, with the result that counterfeit prescription-only medicines were being sold without the knowledge of the website owners. Measures were instituted to have these websites deleted or to correct the falsified pages.

Criminal networks are constantly changing

The illegal distribution of medicinal products is the work of professionally organised and internationally networked criminals. Falsified medicines are generally produced in Asia, with fake erectile stimulants originating in India. Such products find their way to Swiss patients by illegal and circuitous routes. Last year, most of the confiscated shipments had been dispatched from Singapore. Thanks to close cooperation with the Singapore-based HSA (Health Sciences Authority), the operators in this transit country are no longer active. In the PANGEA XIV campaign, most of the consignments seized had arrived from Poland or Germany – which have recently been acting as transit countries for medicines manufactured in India. To minimise the risk of their shipments being confiscated, criminal networks had evidently changed their distribution channels – though to no avail.

These illegally traded products constitute a premeditated threat to patients’ health. They contain either none of the declared active substance or else less than the amount stated. In an attempt to foil simple tests, some of them contain active substances in smaller amounts than those stated.

In some cases, their inferior quality is visible to the naked eye. It is more dangerous, however, when their defects – such as wrong active substances, incorrect dosage or contamination with other substances – are not immediately evident.

Safe use of medicinal products: some important tips

  • Obtain your medicines from safe sources: these include certified and authorised online pharmacies, or else local pharmacies, drugstores, doctors’ surgeries or hospitals. Only products obtained through monitored distribution channels are safe, effective and of good quality.
  • Be safe: medicinal products containing the wrong amount of active ingredient and products containing components harmful to health represent an incalculable health hazard.
  • If you obtain a medicine from an unknown source which may have the backing of a criminal network, you are putting your health at considerable risk. It’s just not worth the money you thought you were saving.

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