International operation hits illicit medicine traffickers

A cross-border operation between European and US agencies has netted €7.9m (around $9m) in misused and counterfeit medicines, and resulted in 165 arrests.

The third instalment of the MISMED operation was carried out last summer but has just been reported by Europol, which supported the crackdown led by French police and Finnish Customs.

Nearly 36m units of medicine were seized by enforcement agencies, including pseudoephedrine – an ingredient in cough medicines that is used to synthesise illicit drugs – as well as cancer therapies, antihistamines, anxiolytics, erectile dysfunction medicines, hormone and metabolic regulators, opioid painkillers, antioestrogens, antivirals, hypnotics, and doping substances.

Europol says the initiative disrupted the activities of 12 organised crime groups, revealing once again the close connection between the illicit medicines trade and crime syndicates. It also shows the international nature of the trade, with the 165 arrests taking place in Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Ukraine, and the UK.

The 2019 operation revealed some worrying trends in medicine trafficking, including growing evidence of illicit sales in the EU of cancer drugs stolen from hospitals.

According to Europol, medicines are diverted from the legal supply chain by wholesalers and resold to criminal groups. They are also illegally obtained with forged or stolen medical prescriptions - with or without the help of doctors and pharmacists, and then resold to criminal groups or individuals directly.

Asia remains the main source region for both counterfeit medicines and doping products, but they are often illegally made and packed in underground laboratories within the EU.

MISMED 3 is notable because while the number of seized medicines is higher than the last operation, their overall value is much lower.

MISMED 2 resulted in the seizure of 13m doses of illegally trafficked medicines with a value of more than €165m and led to 435 arrests. The first operation, reported at the end of 2017, netted 75m medicine doses worth around €230m, and 100 arrests.

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