Intended for healthcare professionals


Record number of fake drugs are seized in crackdown

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 28 June 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f4204
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. 1London

Counterfeit and unlicensed drugs worth £12.2m (€14.2m; $18.6m) have been seized in the United Kingdom as part of an international crackdown on the illegal internet trade.

The UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) worked with customs officials, the police, and agencies around the world as part of Operation Pangea VI. The week long operation resulted in 58 people being arrested worldwide and the seizure of 9.9 million doses of unlicensed and fake drugs, worth around £26.8m. Drugs seized included those for erectile dysfunction, weight loss, cancer, acne, and depression.

The operation, coordinated by Interpol, involved 99 countries and resulted in 9600 illegal online websites being shut down or suspended through the removal of the domain name or payment facilities.

This is the sixth such operation. The number of websites closed is less than last year’s record figure, when 18 000 illegal websites were shut down.1 Nimo Ahmed, MHRA’s acting head of enforcement, said that this was because last year’s operation had resulted in the closure of many of the main anchor sites.

Ahmed said that many of the websites looked very professional and tended to have a picture of a doctor with a white coat and stethoscope. These tended to be feeder sites, with thousands of such sites feeding into one anchor site. He said that a website may be registered in China and hosted in Russia, with drugs coming from all over the world.

Ahmed added that the vast majority of drugs came from India and were unlicensed versions. It used to be the case that they were sent to buyers in official looking packaging with patient information leaflets, but now they were often just in plain blister packs, he said. Drugs for erectile dysfunction used to be the bulk of those seized, but now officials were seeing drugs for a range of conditions, particularly cancer.

Ahmed said, “When people buy medicines from an illegal website they don’t know what they’re getting, where it came from, or if it’s safe to take. The dose could be too high or too low, or the ingredients could break down incorrectly in the body, which makes the medicine ineffective.”

He added that as well as the risk from the drug itself purchasers could also become victims of credit card or identity fraud.

Neal Patel of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said that internet sales of unlicensed and counterfeit drugs represented a serious patient safety issue. “Not only is supplying prescription only medicines without a prescription illegal, it means that the user has no information about the ingredients, dosage instructions, or potential side effects, so patients would not be receiving proper healthcare advice.”

The General Pharmaceutical Council operates an internet pharmacy logo to help the public identify whether a website is being operated by a bona fide pharmacy in the UK. If anyone suspects that their drug may be counterfeit, they are urged to contact the MHRA’s designated 24 hour hotline on +44 (0)20 3080 6701 or email counterfeit{at}


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f4204


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