Interpol is celebrating the closure of thousands of illicit online pharmacies in the largest-ever global operation targeting fake medicines.

Nearly 200 enforcement agencies across 111 countries have taken part in Operation Pangea VII, leading to 237 arrests worldwide and the seizure of nearly $36 million worth of potentially dangerous medicines. It resulted in the launch of 1,235 investigations, the removal of more than 19,000 adverts for illicit pharmaceuticals via social media platforms and more than 10,600 websites shut down.

As well as raids at addresses linked to the aforementioned websites, some 543,000 packages were inspected by customs and regulatory authorities, of which nearly 20,000 were seized in a 'week of action' (May 13–20). Among the 9.4 million fake and illicit medicines seized were slimming pills, cancer medication, erectile dysfunction pills, cough and cold medication and anti-malarials, plus cholesterol and nutritional products.

Interpol noted that in addition to interventions on the ground (which included the dismantlement of three laboratories in Colombia) the operation "also targeted the main areas exploited by organised crime in the illegal online medicine trade", namely rogue domain name registrars, electronic payment systems and delivery services.

UK's MHRA plays key role

Playing a key part in the operation, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency announced that it has seized £8.6 million of counterfeit and unlicensed medicines in the UK, including "huge hauls of potentially harmful slimming pills and controlled drugs such as diazepam and anabolic steroids". Enforcement officers from the agency, with assistance from Home Office Border Force and local police, worked together to nab 3.6 million doses of counterfeit and unlicensed medicines, resulting in five arrests and the shutdown of 1,891 websites.

The majority of packages seized that contained medicines supplied illegally originated from India and China, 72% and 11% respectively, and the MHRA noted that it has targeted YouTube accounts and videos "as criminals seek to exploit new channels to profit from the illegal sale of medicines". The MHRA’s head of enforcement, Alastair Jeffrey, noted that the medicines recovered during raids were being held "in appalling conditions, such as a dirty old building with broken windows, with medicines lying on the floor in bin bags".