German authorities busted a counterfeit-drug ring yesterday selling fake Viagra (Pfizer, New York) via Internet pharmacy websites, according to an Agence France-Presse report. After a months-long investigation involving 60 customs officers, seven prosecutors and 25 tax investigators, raids in five cities produced 46,000 counterfeit Viagra tablets, frozen bank accounts in Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, France, and Turkey, four confiscated luxury vehicles, 15,000 euros ($21,000) in cash, and four people in police custody. The report says that violators of Germany’s pharmaceutical laws could face up to 10 years in prison.
In March, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas announced that Richard Fletcher was convicted of conspiring to distribute counterfeit pharmaceuticals and trafficking in pharmaceuticals bearing false labeling and counterfeit trademarks. An investigation involving Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations showed that Fletcher sold counterfeit erectile-dysfunction drugs Viagra, Cialis (Eli Lilly, Indianapolis) and Levitra (Bayer, Leverkusen, Germany) via a website that he owned, and that he had obtained the counterfeit drugs online from a source in China. Fletcher also “discussed techniques to evade detection and seizure by law enforcement officials with individuals residing in China,” according to a US Attorney’s Office press release.
Fletcher pleaded guilty to both federal offenses and faces up to 10 years in federal prison, without parole, a $250,000 fine, and a maximum of three years of supervised release after the prison term. Fletcher is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 22, 2009.
It’s too early for counterfeit swine flu vaccines to appear online, but this spring the Internet was immediately populated with websites offering unapproved products to treat the H1N1 influenza virus. On May 1, FDA warned consumers about illegal products marketed through the Internet related to the 2009 H1N1 flu virus. The agency has issued more than 50 warning letters to offending websites. The warning letters show that, hoping to cash in on a worldwide crisis, companies offered various unapproved products, from swine flu kits to nasal sanitizers to antiviral herbal remedies, with claims such as, “One pack is enough for a family of four to prevent winter colds and influenza, including swine flu, if you have been exposed,” and an air purifier that promises to be “tested and proven effective at controlling and killing bird avian flu, SARS, anthrax spores, and now Swine Flu!” Since early May, FDA says more than 66% of these websites have removed the offending claims and/or products.
Ordering pharmaceutical products online can be risky if the proper precautions are not taken by the consumer. The World Health Organization estimates that half of all pharmaceutical sales from Internet websites that conceal their physical address are counterfeit or adulterated.
Perhaps what is needed is more education and awareness for consumers. FDA’s web page on counterfeit drugs offers helpful information about how to avoid counterfeits by using only pharmacies licensed in the United States. An article explains how to shop safely online by looking for the VIPPS Seal, or the seal of the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites Accreditation Program. Resources for verifying the good standing of pharmacies and the VIPPS Seal certification are provided. FDA’s Counterfeit Medicines page also contains a link to report a website that may be selling counterfeits.
If consumers seek information on how to protect themselves from counterfeit drugs, FDA provides that information clearly and effectively—but do people know that they can and should be looking for it? For example, do most people know to check for the VIPPS Seal before purchasing from an online pharmacy? Maybe a greater effort to let people know that they can get involved in fighting counterfeiting would be a step toward greater public safety.
For more on the pharmaceutical industry’s anticounterfeiting efforts and supply-chain security, see Pharmaceutical Technology’s recent special report.