Counterfeit medicine networks across Africa targeted in INTERPOL co-ordinated operations

13 November 2009

LYON, France – Unregistered and illegally sold medical and cosmetic products worth thousands of euros have been seized in a series of operations across Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, co-ordinated by INTERPOL.

More than 300 officers from police, customs, drug regulatory authorities, immigration and other agencies took part in Operation Zambezi, which targeted the sale of fake and illegal medicines under the umbrella of the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT), a global coalition created by the World Health Organization to fight counterfeit medicines.

During the operation, which ran from 12 October to 6 November, a total of 263 premises were visited, including pharmacies, surgeries, wholesalers and supermarkets, resulting in nearly 25 cases being opened to follow up potential links with other countries. Among the 19 premises closed down was an unauthorized private clinic in Malawi which was discovered to be re-using disposable material and dispensing illegally obtained government-owned medicines.

Across all four countries, a range of counterfeit medicines and illicit medical products were seized, including antimalarials, antibiotics, steroids and erectile dysfunction medicines, all of which pose a significant threat to public health and safety. Fake antimalarial drugs are believed to be a contributory factor in a significant number of cases involving treatment failure and sometimes even death in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The success of the operation clearly shows the commitment of all the countries involved, and more importantly demonstrates what can be achieved through inter-agency co-operation,” said Operation Zambezi co-ordinator, Roberto Manriquez, a criminal intelligence officer from INTERPOL’s Intellectual Property crime unit.

Welcoming the results, Commissioner of Swaziland police, Isaac Mmeli Magagula, said joint efforts were needed to tackle the problem of illegal and counterfeit medicines.

“Unsuspecting customers and patients put their health, and even lives in jeopardy each time they use fake medicines and food products. These crimes are therefore an ugly reminder of our need to stay alert and innovative in our efforts to protect our respective peoples,” said Commissioner Magagula.

Training formed a key aspect of the operation, delivered as part of INTERPOL’s Intellectual Property rights OASIS (Operational Assistance, Services and Infrastructure Support) Programme in Africa, which is funded by Germany. Before each three-day operation, a two-day course was delivered in all four countries to brief personnel on methods and procedures and, in particular, the need for inter-agency co-operation.

“I appreciate INTERPOL’s hard work and dedication. The training they have provided has opened a window of opportunity for us to intensify our collaboration and to carry out more operations in the future, so that we can face the problem of counterfeit medicines which are like a killer virus that threatens everybody,” said Eugene Sibote, the Director of Human Resources, Development and Training of the Zambia Police Service.

The Director General of the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe, Mr Mafios Dauramanzi said he looked forward to future collaborations and hoped that Operation Zambezi "marks the beginning of a journey to curb counterfeit medicines thereby protecting public health."

Operation Zambezi is the latest in a series of INTERPOL-supported operations targeting counterfeit pharmaceutical products in Africa and follows the successes of Operations Mamba I and II and Operation Fiela.