International Organizations Combat Online Sales of Counterfeit Drugs

Oct 21, 2010

During Oct. 5–12, 2010, more than 40 countries cooperated in an international week of action to combat the online sale of counterfeit and illegal drugs and to raise awareness of their associated health risks. The operation resulted in arrests across the globe and the seizure of thousands of potentially harmful medicines.

The collaboration, named Operation Pangea III, focused on websites that supply illegal and dangerous medicines. It was coordinated by INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization, the Permanent Forum of International Pharmaceutical Crime, the Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers, the pharmaceutical industry, and the electronic-payments industry. Operation Pangea III was the largest Internet-based action of its kind in support of the World Health Organization's International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT), according to an INTERPOL press release.

International police, customs officers, and national medicines regulators, including the US Food and Drug Administration, took part in the operation. Internet service providers (ISPs), payment-systems providers, and delivery services also provided support. The global operation targeted ISPs, the electronic-payment system, and the delivery service—the three major components of the illegal website trade.

“Through a multisector operation involving law enforcement and health, INTERPOL’s key objective in Operation Pangea III was to alert and protect members of the public by assisting our 188 member countries shut down illegal pharmaceutical websites, chase money flows, and backtrack to the sources behind these illicit pharmaceutical products, which represent such a threat to the health of the public,” said INTERPOL’s Secretary General Ronald K. Noble in the press release.

“While this international operation, the third of its kind, shows that criminals attempting to use the Internet as an anonymous safe haven are not safe anymore, we hope that that by raising public awareness about the dangers of illegal Internet pharmacies, consumers will exercise greater care when purchasing medicines online,” said Noble in the statement.

During the operation, 45 participating countries sent intelligence to a dedicated operations center at INTERPOL’s General Secretariat headquarters in Lyon, France. Participants identified 694 websites as being engaged in illegal activity and shut down 290 of them.

FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI), in conjunction with the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research and the Office of Enforcement within the Office of Regulatory Affairs, targeted 294 websites that appeared to be engaged in the illegal sale of unapproved or misbranded drugs to US consumers. FDA sent Warning Letters to the operators of these websites, all of which appear to be associated with the same individuals and corporate entities located outside the US. The agency also notified the corresponding ISPs and domain-name registrars (DNRs) that the websites were selling products in violation of US law. In many cases, conducting illegal activities also violates ISP and DNR policies and agreements, thus giving the hosting companies the opportunity to terminate the websites and suspend the domain names. Of the 294 websites addressed in the Warning Letter, 274 have been suspended or no longer offer pharmaceuticals for sale. FDA is working with its foreign counterparts to address the remaining 20 websites.

OCI and FDA’s import specialists also joined with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, US Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the US Postal Inspection Service to target and interdict shipments of violative pharmaceutical products passing through certain international mail facilities and express courier hubs.

In addition, international regulators and customs officials inspected about 268,000 packages, seized almost 11,000 packages, and confiscated more than one million counterfeit pills, including antibiotics, steroids, anticancer therapies, antidepression medicines, and antiepileptic drugs. About 76 individuals currently are under investigation or under arrest for offenses such as illegally selling and supplying unlicensed or prescription-only medicines.

See related PharmTech articles:
FDA Commissioner Hamburg Discusses Counterfeit Drugs at Conference (blog post)

Authentication and Pharmaceutical Protection: An Industry Roundtable (PharmTech)

New Treaty to Curb Counterfeit Drugs (PharmTech Europe)

IFPMA launches Ten Principles on Counterfeit Medicines (ePT)