Pharmaceutical crime is a major global public health concern, with the trade of counterfeit and illicit health products affecting all countries through source, transit, or destination points.
Patients around the world put their health and even their lives at risk by unknowingly consuming fake and unregulated medical products, or products that have been altered, diverted, badly stored, or have passed their expiration date. For the 14th year in a row, the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) joined 94 Interpol member countries in a coordinated crackdown on illicit online pharmacies dubbed “Operation Pangea XV,” June 23-30. The operation netted more than 7,800 seizures of illicit and falsified medicines, totaling more than three million individual units valued at $11 million.
“Dealing counterfeit or illicit medicines online may seem like a low-level offense, but the consequences for victims are potentially life-threatening,” said Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “The illicit supply chains and business models behind the trade in counterfeit medicines are inherently international, meaning that law enforcement has to work together across borders in order to effectively protect consumers.”
Every day, advertisements for medicines invade the internet, posted on social media networks or other websites. Behind this marketing, however, often lies fraudulent products that damage consumers’ health instead of healing them.
The global trade in illicit pharmaceuticals was valued at $4.4 billion in 2016—and attracts the involvement of organized crime groups around the world.
During the weeklong operation, law enforcement:
- Investigated more than 4,000 web links, mainly from social media platforms and messaging apps;
- Shut down or removed more than 4,000 web links containing adverts for illicit products;
- Inspected nearly 3,000 packages and 280 postal hubs at airports, borders, and mail distribution or cargo mail centers; and
- Opened more than 600 new investigations and issued more than 200 search warrants.
While results are still incoming, enforcement actions have already disrupted the activities of at least 36 organized crime groups.
Nearly half (48 percent) of the packages inspected by law enforcement during the operation were found to contain either illicit or falsified medicines.
Fake or unauthorized erectile dysfunction medicines comprised at least 40 percent of all products seized. Law enforcement in Australia, Argentina, Malaysia, and the United States also seized more than 317,000 unauthorized COVID-19 test kits. The US seizures alone are estimated to be worth nearly $3 million.
The trade in illicit medicines extends far beyond any one country’s borders. Often, products are manufactured in one country and shipped to another, while advertisements for the medicines are hosted on websites based in other countries altogether.
In Malaysia alone, law enforcement identified more than 2,000 websites selling or advertising false or restricted pharmaceuticals.
Social media networks and messaging apps are also used to advertise counterfeit or illicit medicines, with Operation Pangea XV identifying more than 1,200 such ads across all major platforms.
Within the framework of Operation Pangea XV, Interpol was able to count on the support of Europol, the World Customs Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Container Control Programme, health regulatory agencies, and the Pharmaceutical Security Institute.
Interpol’s Illicit Goods and Global Health Programme works to dismantle criminal networks and reduce the risk fake and illicit pharmaceuticals pose to public health.
Since 2008, Operation Pangea has been combating the global trafficking of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and illicit health products marketed and sold online. Pangea also aims to raise public awareness of the risks associated with buying medicines from unregulated websites.