More than 40 countries have taken part in an international week of action targeting the online sale of counterfeit and illegal medicines to raise awareness of the associated health risks, resulting in arrests across the globe and the seizure of thousands of potentially harmful medicines.

Focusing on websites supplying illegal and dangerous medicines, Operation Pangea III is the largest Internet based action of its kind in support of the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT). It was coordinated by INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization (WCO), the Permanent Forum of International Pharmaceutical crime (PFIPC), the Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers (HMA WGEO), the pharmaceutical industry and the electronic payments industry.

Carried out between 5 and 12 October and involving police, customs and national medicines regulators with support from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), payment systems providers and delivery services, the global operation targeted the three main components abused in the illegal website trade: the Internet Service Provider (ISP), the electronic payment system and the delivery service.

“Through a multi-sector 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 Secretary General Ronald K. Noble, pointing to the importance of key international partnership involving INTERPOL and international bodies such as the World Health Organization and the World Customs Organization.

“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 any more, we hope that that by raising public awareness about the dangers of illegal Internet pharmacies, consumers will exercise greater care when purchasing medicines online,” added Mr Noble.

During the operation which saw the 45 participating countries send intelligence to a dedicated operations centre at INTERPOL’s General Secretariat headquarters in Lyon, Internet monitoring revealed 694 websites engaged in illegal activity, 290 of which have now been shut down. In addition, some 268,000 packages were inspected by regulators and customs, almost 11,000 packages were seized and just over 1 million illicit and counterfeit pills were confiscated – including antibiotics, steroids, anti-cancer, anti-depression and anti-epileptic pills, as well as slimming or food supplement pills. Some 76 individuals are currently under investigation or under arrest for a range of offences, including illegally selling and supplying unlicensed or prescription-only medicines.

With the value of the seized illicit and counterfeit pills put at USD 2.6 million, and with this year’s operation involving 20 more countries than in the previous such operation in 2009, the head of INTERPOL praised the efforts of the parties involved.

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