A British man has been sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in what law enforcers describe as the "most serious known breach" of the regulated UK medicines supply chain.

Following a four-month trial in Croydon Crown Court, 64-year old Peter Gillespie was found guilty for working with an international network of criminals to inject fake drugs into the UK's legitimate supply chain during a five-month period in 2007.

The case, known as Operation Singapore, centred on the importation of more than two million doses of counterfeit life-saving medicines into the country.

More than half of these were captured by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, but a huge amount - almost 900,000 doses - initially reached pharmacies and patients.

Despite an immediate recall of Eli Lilly’s antipsychotic Zyprexa (olanzapine), Bristol-Myers Squibb's bloodthinner Plavix (clopidogrel) and AstraZeneca's prostate cancer drug Casodex (bicalutamide), 700,000 doses were left unaccounted for, putting the health of many Britons in jeopardy.

Mick Deats, the MHRA's head of enforcement, also revealed that plans to bring in three other counterfeit drugs - Pfizer/Eisai's Alzheimer's drug Aricept (donepezil), UCB's antiepileptic Keppra (levetiracetam) and Johnson & Johnson's antipsychotic Risperdal (risperidone) - had been foiled.

Plans foiled

"They didn't get to bring them in but they were definitely well on the way to being prepared to receive them," he told the media, according to Reuters.

"This is serious criminal activity and puts people’s lives at risk," Deats said, and stressed that the Agency would not hesitate "to take all appropriate action to eliminate the risks posed by counterfeit medicines and take action against those engaged in their supply".

However, he also noted current evidence suggests that medicines supplied through the UK legitimate supply chain are genuine and safe to take. 

Since 2004 there have been just 15 known instances of counterfeit medicines in the UK regulated supply chain, and given that 850 million prescriptions are dispensed every year in the UK, the likelihood of receiving a counterfeit medicine remains extremely rare, the MHRA said.