Worldwide operations to combat illegal online supply of medicines


Over 40 countries from all continents took part in an international week of action, "Operation Pangea III", to combat online trade in counterfeit and illegal medicines with a view to raising awareness of the health risks involved. During the week, and among other results, 290 websites were closed and a number of individuals were apprehended. In addition, over 260,000 parcels were inspected at 328 postal hubs and 10,900 parcels containing more than 1,000,000 units of medicines were seized.

During Operation Pangea III, the customs and regulatory authorities for medicines targeted websites offering medicines that are illegal and that represent a threat to health. Between 5 and 12 October, national medicines regulators, customs and police services from the participating countries carried out national operations. Overall, the main focus was on the three principal components of an illegal website: the Internet Service Provider (ISP), payment systems and the delivery service. The week of action was co-ordinated by several international bodies*.

In Switzerland, the Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products (Swissmedic), the Federal Customs Administration and other authorities have long been waging a joint combat against the illegal trade of medicines over the Internet. A one-week joint operation at the Zurich-Mülligen customs post resulted in the interception of 1,178 parcels containing medicines. Swissmedic employees present assessed the contents and proceeded to seize 165 of them on the basis of the risks involved. The individuals who had ordered the products in question were faced with the costs of administrative proceedings on the part of Swissmedic, with the destruction of the products, and in some cases with penal sanctions by the customs authorities. The operation at Zurich-Mülligen confirmed the estimation from two years previously; i.e. that at least 50,000 dispatches of medicinal products are imported illegally by individuals annually. The number of the permitted imports of small quantities of medicines (within the framework of one month's supply for personal use) has risen. Given the large number of these orders of small quantities by individuals, the figure of around 50,000 further, legally permitted imports of medicines can be estimated. These - almost exclusively prescription-only - medicines are also usually counterfeits, imitations or poor quality products that are dangerous for health.

Collaboration between the Federal Customs Authorities and Swissmedic is therefore proving extremely important in the ongoing suppression of the illegal import of medicines and thus to protecting the health of the Swiss population.

During the week of action, Swissmedic also succeeded - with the help of the registry for .ch domain names SWITCH - in having four websites taken down that specifically targeted Swiss customers. Three of the websites that were closed above all offered prescription-only potency medicines, and one website offering numerous prescription-only medicines claimed to be a Swiss Internet Pharmacy.

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

* Co-ordination by INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization (WCO), Permanent Forum of International Pharmaceutical crime (PFIPC), Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers (HMA WGEO) and online payment systems providers in support of International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT)