International operation combats the on-line supply of counterfeit and illegal medicines


An international week of action targeting the on-line 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 26 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.

During the operation, until today e.g. 34 actions were conducted in postal hubs, 995 packages were seized and 72 websites were taken down.

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 Switzerland, authorities are collaborating in the fight against illegal trading with medicines on the Internet. Within the framework of Operation Pangea II, the Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products - Swissmedic - succeeded in having a website taken down that operated out of Switzerland and offered prescription potency medicines and counterfeit slimming products. Customers were moreover misled into believing, from the website, that there would be no problem with the customs in receiving the products.

For customers acting in good faith, such acts can have consequences. The medicines ordered from the Internet are usually sent from another country to recipients in Switzerland via illegal distribution channels. The deliveries frequently consist of counterfeit products or medicines of lower quality: moreover, individuals may only import small quantifies of medicinal products into Switzerland.

A further Swiss contribution towards Operation Pangea II in the fight against illegal on-line trading was a two-day joint intervention at Geneva airport by the Federal Customs Authorities and Swissmedic. On 17 and 18 november, courier and post packages from Asia were controlled at the airport: customs agents opened suspicious packages of goods, and Swissmedic employees assessed any therapeutic products found.

Out of 261 packages checked, 30 contained medicines. Nine packages were seized by customs and their recipients will face administrative proceedings for the illegal import of medicines. The Customs office can introduce legal and policy provisions. The goods seized were mainly products that might be dangerous to health such as hormones, psychotropic drugs and prescription-only slimming products. Based on the results of this two-day operation, it can be estimated that around 1400 illegal courier and post packages containing illegally imported medicines transit Geneva airport per year.

Thanks to a control operation last year, it was estimated that at least 50,000 dispatches of illegal medicinal products are imported by individuals annually. The series of national measures developed by the Federal Customs Authorities and Swissmedic is therefore proving extremely important in the ongoing suppression of the illegal import of medicines.

Since the illegal trade in medicines has reached the global dimensions of organised crime, international collaboration by the authorities is becoming increasingly important. In addition to international operations such as Pangea II, it is above the regular exchange of information and rapid collaboration in international cases that constitute the basis for the successful fight against pharmaceutical crime.