Ireland’s medicines regulatory chief has said the infiltration of fake pharmaceuticals into the legal supply chain to hospitals and chemists posed the “biggest nightmare” for the agency.
John Lynch said an investigation was ongoing across Europe into how the Mafia had breached legal supply routes, resulting in contaminated stolen products ending up in hospitals in Britain, Germany and Finland.
Speaking at a major conference organised by international police body, Interpol, the director of compliance at the Health Products Regulatory Authority said Ireland had to remain “vigilant” as there was a “long supply chain” from abroad, which only needed “one weakness” for illegal products to get in.
The conference heard there was a booming trade in counterfeit and stolen pharmaceuticals - including tranquillisers, steroids, erectile dysfunction tablets and slimming pills.
The trade is controlled by international and domestic organised crime groups, attracted by massive profits and low criminal penalties as well as poor or non-existent regulatory frameworks in parts of the developing world.
Gardaí told the conference the trade — and the involvement of drug gangs — was increasing here, with a particularly lucrative market in tranquillisers and sedatives.
The force has even uncovered production facilities, including one in Dublin last July, where 50,000 tablets and tableting machines were uncovered. That operation was linked to a major west Dublin drug trafficking gang.
Garda sources said tranquillisers known as benzodiazepines, including Diazepam, and sleeping tablets, like Zopiclone, are “increasingly” being sold illicitly across the country. They are linked with a majority of drug deaths and contribute to significant anti-social and intimidation by users.
HPRA figures show that 920,000 illicit capsules were seized by them in 2013, compared to 758.000 in 2012. The 2013 haul included 393,000 benzodiazepines, 153,000 slimming tablets and 83,000 erectile dysfunction tablets.
Mr Lynch said people — often ordering online in an attempt to self-medicate — were “taking real chances” and that fake medicines had a “potential to endanger life”.
He said the incident last April in which anti-cancer drugs had been stolen by the Mafia in Italy and reemerged, contaminated, in hospitals in Britain, Germany and France posed a huge worry.
“It’s our biggest nightmare really — illegal, substandard, products getting into the legal supply chain, into pharmacies and hospitals and so on,” he said.
In the Italian case, the Camorra stole the tablets from hospitals and distribution trucks and transferred them to a licensed wholesaler with fake invoices.
Mr Lynch said such a case had not happened here. But he said the supply chain was “quite long”, adding: “There can be quite a number of handovers. You only need one weakness for illegal product to get in.”
Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney said gardaí were seeing “more and more focus by some organised crime groups, particularly those involved in the drug trade” getting involved.
“The products are potentially lethal for people, who are in the first place vulnerable, sick people in a lot of incidences, the have serious illnesses. They are given false hope at a price they can afford.”