Principal Consultant Grant Courtney provides an overview of the findings of the recent Operation Pangea, looking at what the rise in the fake medicines and the consequences of Brexit means for the UK and what action needs to be taken to protect our supply chains.
Operation Pangea is an international effort coordinated by INTERPOL, across 92 countries, which aims to disrupt the online sale of fake and illicit health products.
Through the combined work of regulatory bodies, healthcare companies, customs and the police, millions of potentially dangerous medicines are prevented from reaching patients each year.
In addition to seizing falsified product the operation also successfully brings down websites and online marketplaces operated by criminals, dismantles criminal gangs and raises awareness of the risks to the public.
Operation Pangea XIV (2021) ran from May 18 – 25th and it comes as no surprise that products related to the COVID-19 pandemic featured heavily, with testing kits accounting for more than half of all medical devices seized.
The numbers speak for themselves:
• 277 arrests. • 113,020 web-links taken down. • $23m worth or illicit products seized.
What is really telling is the dramatic increase in the value of seized products, up 164% over 2020 numbers. The UK was a focal point of this year’s operation with over 3 million medicines and medical devices seized with a value of almost $13 million.
Whilst Pangea focuses on the illegal on-line sale of medicines, we must not forget that falsified drugs also enter the legitimate supply chain. Between 2011 and 2014 thousands of stolen medicines from Italian hospitals were taken out of the controlled supply chain and ended up in pharmacies across the UK, this included Lyrica, the epilepsy drug, but also medicines for prostate cancer and schizophrenia.
Legislation such as the EU Falsified Medicines Directive (EU FMD) has been enacted with the specific objective of providing protection to patients from Falsified Medicines entering the legitimate supply chain, however since Brexit the EU FMD no longer applies to Great Britain.
In October 2020 the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) wrote to the health secretary, Matt Hancock and asked for plans to be established to help authenticate medicines that move between the EU and UK. The RPS were concerned that the removal of safeguards provided by the EU FMD could lead to an influx of falsified medicines.
Clearly Pangea XIV and historical cases show that the UK is a target of an increasing level of criminal activity and the implications of the Pandemic and Brexit leave patients more exposed than before.
Our attention must therefore focus on two important legislative areas, the first is the Digital Services Act (DSA), as this represents an opportunity to help prevent criminals anonymously operating on-line websites and selling to the public. The second will be the UK legislation which replaces the EU FMD. Both of these will be critical to the continued fight against fake medicines.
Image: Fake medicines seized during Operation Pangea XIV (2021) - Photo source INTERPOL