Illegal medicines worth €64m pulled from EU markets

Law enforcement agencies from 30 countries seized hundreds of thousands of counterfeit and misused drugs and illicit doping substances worth an estimated €64m ($69m) and charged almost 1,300 people with criminal activity.

Operation Shield IV, coordinated by Europol, saw law, judicial, customs, medical and anti-doping authorities from 30 countries across three continents come together in a major crackdown that exposes the scale of the falsified medicines trade and the role of organised criminal networks in driving it.

Europol said the campaign, which resulted in the investigation of more than 50 organised crime gangs, “highlighted a pattern of large-scale trafficking which is highly lucrative for organised crime, which in turn incentivises more criminal groups to enter the trade.”

Going by the numbers, there were more than 636,000 packages of illegal pharmaceuticals seized during the operation, which was carried out between April and October last year, along with 69,000 kg of powders and other raw materials, 11,500 litres of active ingredients, 121,000 vials and ampoules and 12m oral dosage forms.

Four clandestine production labs were also shut down, along with 92 websites used to sell the illegal medicines to the public.

Among the notable enforcement successes was the dismantling of a criminal network in Greece that had been trafficking unauthorised pharmaceuticals and medical devices since 2019, including knock-offs of AbbVie’s wrinkle therapy Botox and other drugs used in cosmetic surgery, which resulted in 20 arrests.

In Italy, a rural underground lab set up for the production, labelling and packaging of doping products was uncovered and shut down, with the seizure of “vast quantities” of doping substances in vials, tablets, capsules, bottles and packaging, all intended for sale in the domestic market.

“The consumption of medications beyond medical oversight remains a persistent social issue,” said Europol, adding that the reasons for use vary from psychotropic and recreational purposes to performance-enhancing effects.

“Some users disregard medical prescriptions and inject non-injectable products (such as sublingual pills, patch contents, or eye drops) or resell medicines prescribed for medical treatment,” added the agency.

“The excessive consumption of medications nurtures a demand that cannot be satisfied through legal means, [and] leads to diversion from the regulated supply chain.”

The latest operation marks a step up in activity from Shield III, which netted 10.5m illegal pharmaceuticals worth €40m and resulted in 349 suspects arrested or reported to judicial authorities.

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