Over 34,000 unlicensed and fake products advertised as “remedies” for COVID-19 were seized globally in one week this month by police, customs and health regulatory authorities from 90 countries.
The items were being sold through 2,000 online advertisements as “cure” for the coronavirus.
Operation Pangea XIII, spearheaded by INTERPOL, resulted in 121 arrests worldwide and the seizure of potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals world worth US$14 million, according to the international police agency.
INTERPOL, based in Lyon in France, said that items seized included counterfeit facemasks, sub-standard hand sanitisers and unauthorised medication.
It noted: “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.”
Compared with similar action in 2018, the current operation reported an increase of 18 per cent in seizures of unauthorised antiviral medication, and an increase of more than 100 per cent in seizures of unauthorised chloroquine (an antimalarial medication), which could also be connected to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Once again, Operation Pangea shows that criminals will stop at nothing to make a profit,” said Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL's Secretary General.
“The illicit trade in such counterfeit medical items during a public health crisis shows their total disregard for people's wellbeing, or their lives.”
INTERPOL said the operation had already closed down more than 2,500 web links, including websites, social media pages, online marketplaces and online adverts for illicit pharmaceuticals with a similar number in the process of being closed down.
In all, the authorities said they disrupted the activities of 37 organised crime groups.
Operation Pangea is an international initiative to target the illegal internet trade in medicines. It was launched in 2006 by the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Mark Jackson, Head of Enforcement at the MHRA, said: “Criminals who sell medicines and devices illegally are not only breaking the law but have no regard for your health and will take advantage of a major public health crisis to make a profit.
“Taking fake or unlicensed medicines and using a non-compliant medical device could put your health and safety in danger and may lead to serious health issues.”
“Our intelligence-led operations across the UK have seized millions of fake and unlicensed medicines.
“The MHRA is committed to working with our international partners and UK Border Force to prevent fake medicines from entering the UK and to identify illicit websites offering to sell and supply medicines and medical devices illegally.”
On buying medicines online, the MHRA offered this advice: “Medicines and medical devices are not ordinary consumer goods and their sale and supply is tightly controlled.
“Websites operating outside the legal supply chain may seem tempting.
“For example, prescription medicine is offered without a prescription.
“Not only are they breaking the law – they are putting your health at risk.”
It also warned against self-prescription of medicines.
“Self-diagnosis and self-medication can be very dangerous,” the MHRA said.
“If you have a concern about your health, visit your [doctor], get a correct diagnosis and if medicines are prescribed, buy them from a legitimate source.”
INTERPOL added its own warning: “Fake medicines often contain the wrong amount of active ingredient (too little, too much, or none at all).
“In other cases, the medicines may be genuine but have been stolen and then badly stored or may have expired.
“This means they could be ineffective or contaminated.”
Health experts say this warning is important for Africa where fake medicines proliferate.
They are urging governments to use this opportunity to crack down on the trade in illicit and counterfeit medicines.