Italian mafia at center of network that stole vials of Roche's Herceptin

European authorities recently warned that stolen vials of Roche's cancer med Herceptin were showing up across the continent, some containing little or no active ingredient. Now they say the thefts were not isolated incidents, but commissioned by an organized crime group in Italy.

"Italy has become the breeding ground for collecting costly products that are then shipped on to other countries across Europe in what is a very lucrative business," Domenico Di Giorgio told Reuters. Di Giorgio is head of the anti-counterfeiting group for Italian drug regulator AIFA.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) issued an alert to healthcare professionals last month to be on the lookout for vials of Roche's ($RHHBY) Herceptin with specific batch numbers. While only a small number of vials were believed stolen from 9 different batches, the Swiss company recalled all of them as a precaution. The EMA said none of the stolen vials have been found in hospitals, and there have been no reports that any patients have been harmed. Some of the vials contained no active ingredient and others only some.

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 drugs surfaced in Britain, Finland and Germany. The investigator told Reuters that other drugs also are probably involved. The three drugmakers told The Wall Street Journal that they are working with authorities on the case.

Authorities were tipped off when a British wholesaler alerted the AIFA it had found "anomalies" when buying the drug from Farmaceutica Internazionale, an Italian wholesaler, according to Reuters. The EMA reported at least some of the vials had been stolen from hospitals in Italy. Sources told the Journal that the Camorra--an Italian organized-crime syndicate originating from Naples--was involved, as well as groups in Eastern Europe and a Russian citizen based in Cyprus.

AIFA Director Domenico Di Giorgio

"The network is a kind of giant washing machine for illegally acquired products that focuses on expensive hospital drugs but also steals cargoes from trucks," Di Giorgio told Reuters.

The U.S. has also fallen prey to organized crime, as groups have stolen truckloads of drugs and even burglarized warehouses. U.S. authorities arrested 23 men in 2012 that were tied to a series of heists. They included the burglary of an Eli Lilly warehouse in Connecticut in which more than $70 million worth of drugs were taken, and another incident at a GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) warehouse in Virginia in which more than $13.3 million worth of inhalers were stolen.

- read the Reuters story
- here's more from The Wall Street Journal (sub. req.)