Interpol: Organized crime, aware of weak points, targets counterfeit drugs

Organized crime has moved into selling counterfeit and compromised prescription drugs in Europe, exploiting the mishmash of customs laws and weak points in some border protection. Those weaknesses allowed the "Mafia" to get fake manifests, use suspect wholesalers, and sell counterfeits of Roche's ($RHHBY) Herceptin and other cancer drugs across Europe.

"You can see the Mafia people saw the opportunity to make money and they know that pharmaceutical crime is one of the good havens for them right now because of lack of legislation and the complexities of coordination in countries," Aline Plancon, head of Interpol's pharmaceutical crime unit, said at a conference in Ireland Wednesday, Medical Xpress reported.

Much of Interpol's work fighting counterfeits has revolved around shutting down online sites selling fake or illegal drugs without prescription. Earlier this year, authorities discovered a loose but extensive network tied to Italian organized crime, authorities have said. After being tipped off by a wholesaler in the U.K. that found "anomalies" when buying some of Roche's cancer drug Herceptin from an Italian wholesaler, authorities discovered that vials stolen from a hospital in Italy had surfaced in Finland and Germany as well as the U.K. Stolen vials of Eli Lilly's ($LLY) Alimta, also a cancer drug, as well as Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) arthritis blockbuster Remicade have also shown up. All are among the best-selling drugs in the world. The vials, which had little or no active ingredient, came with fake documents.

John Lynch

John Lynch, director of compliance with Ireland's Health Products Regulatory Authority, told the group, "There are networks of illegal wholesalers in various countries within the EU providing false paper trails for these products."

The U.S. has not been immune. A counterfeit version of Allergan's ($AGN) cosmetic drug Botox was found in the U.S. last year, and in 2012 and 2013 the FDA found that fraudulent versions of Roche's cancer treatment Avastin had been sold to physician practices throughout the U.S. A series of prosecutions have followed and no new reports of fake cancer drugs have surfaced.

But not all countries are attuned to the dangers of counterfeiting. There is a need, not just in Europe, but globally, to put some more bite into laws covering counterfeit drugs and to improve training at all levels of regulation, for customs officials, police and health regulators, Jean-Michel Louboutin, Interpol executive director of police services, said. "Each time you have a piece of the world that's not well protected, this part will contaminate the rest of the world," he said.

- read the Medical Xpress story