Massive counterfeit drug ring cracked

By Anna Lewcock

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Counterfeit drugs Authentication

The biggest counterfeit drugs conspiracy ever to be encountered in
the UK was crushed this week, as gang members were found guilty of
conspiracy by a UK court following a lengthy investigation by the

The massive fake drugs operation resulted in millions of pounds' worth of bogus medicines making their way over to the UK from a network of manufacturing setups around the world. The men under investigation were part of the UK distribution arm of a global counterfeiting ring, with the majority of the fake medicines being produced in China and India, although the operations also stretched to Pakistan, the Caribbean and the US. The counterfeiters focused on fake versions of Merck's hair loss product Propecia (finasteride), as well as the prime earners in the drug faker's portfolio - Pfizer's Viagra (sildenafil citrate) and Lilly's Cialis (tadalafil). In court yesterday, one man was sentenced to four and a half years' imprisonment, with three other men also being found guilty of offences relating to the conspiracy to smuggle and supply counterfeit medicines into and out of the UK between 2002 and 2005. Initial investigations into the industrial scale counterfeiting operation were sparked off in 2002, following a series of seizures of fake drugs at UK airports by customs officials. The fake medicines sourced by the gang were filtered for sale through licensed wholesalers to pharmacies in the UK, and through internet sites based both in the UK and abroad. In 2004, counterfeit Cialis made it as far as the regulated supply chain and eventually reached patients, prompting a recall of the product from the UK market. The investigation by the UK Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) resulted in the seizure of over £1.5m (€2.2m) of counterfeit drugs intended for illegal sale to members of the public. According to the MHRA, these seizures resulted in the "unravelling [of] the biggest conspiracy of the supply of counterfeit medicines thus far in the UK."​ The fake drugs that were brought into the UK were often disguised as other products, such as sample vitamins, sample fish proteins or 'calcium for kids', so as not to attract the attention of the authorities. In this way, one of the members of the counterfeit drugs ring managed to smuggle around half a million Viagra tablets into the UK over a period of six months. This particular character also claimed to have extensive experience within the pharmaceutical industry, and passed himself off as a prominent Pfizer employee to add some kudos to his claims. However, there is no sign of this individual anywhere in Pfizer's employment records, according to a company spokesperson. Pfizer, a constant victim of counterfeiters through the attraction of its erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, today applauded the actions of the MHRA and the results of the court hearing, and used the case to highlight the risk to the pharmaceutical supply chain. "Pfizer welcomes the verdict in this landmark case which illustrates how the UK is being increasingly targeted by international criminal networks intent on supplying counterfeit medicines to UK patients,"​ was told by a company spokesperson. "This case underlines the need to improve the security of the medicines' supply chain and guarantee the safety of UK patients…We hope that this case marks a watershed in medicines authorities' attitudes to the serious crimes of the counterfeiters."​ In June the European Commission released figures revealing a five-fold increase in fake pharmaceuticals across Europe, with 2006 seizures hitting an all-time high of 2.5 million items. The worrying increase in the incidence of counterfeit drugs, and the growing sophistication of the lengths that counterfeiters are now prepared to go to, is a constant source of concern for drug manufacturers, prompting ever more research into new technologies and strategies to protect the pharmaceutical supply chain effectively. In line with this drive to combat counterfeiters, in November the MHRA is hosting an international event to present the key players and ideas in fighting fake medicines. The seminar will bring together representives from major organisations such as the European Commission, World Health Organization and the MHRA, as well as a speaker from the Ministry of Public Security in the Peoples Republic of China. Further in formation about the event can be found here​.

Related topics Markets & Regulations QA/QC

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