$14m in illicit pharma nabbed in Middle East, North Africa op

Nearly 20m illicit medical products worth an estimated $14m have been seized in Operation Qanoon, an Interpol-led operation targeting criminal networks in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The localised operation coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, and as with the global Operation Pangea XIII reported in March uncovered high numbers of counterfeit personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and hand sanitiser.

Between February and April, authorities from Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia carried out inspections at ports, airports, land borders, free trade zones (FTZs), postal hubs, warehouses, pharmacies and other points of sale.

Among the illegal products seized were 61,000 respiratory masks and an artificial respirator in Morocco, 63,000 face masks and 360 sanitising products in Jordan, and 85,000 medical products – facemasks, gloves, thermometers, medical glasses, etc – in Qatar.

The haul also included a wide variety of medicines including anaesthetics, analgesics, antimalarial medicines, tranquilisers, and corticosteroids, as well as supplements, sexual stimulants and growth hormones.

Medical products seized included syringes, suture threads, surgical adhesive tapes and electronic blood glucose readers.

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“The outbreak of the coronavirus disease has offered an opportunity for fast cash, as criminals take advantage of the high market demand for personal protection and hygiene products,” said Interpol in a statement.

The scale of this iteration of Operation Qanoon was much larger than the last in 2018, which netted 1.5m products.

The 2020 operation was also noted for side seizures of methamphetamine and Captagon – a decades-old amphetamine product that is said to be produced in large quantities by Islamic State for use by its fighters and to raise funding – amounting to nearly 5m pills and tablets.

That wasn’t part of the focus of the operation but is included in the reported results to “clearly indicate the proliferation of this type of high stimulant street drugs in the region.”

In June, Italian police said they had seized 14 tonnes of amphetamines suspected of being manufactured in Syria to fund IS, along with 84m counterfeit Captagon pills worth an estimated €1m ($1.16m).

Originally Captagon was a brand name for fenethylline hydrochloride, first introduced in the 1960s by German chemical group Degussa, but was banned in most countries in the 1980s as its side effects were considered to outweigh any clinical benefits.

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