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Pangea X: Impressive Austrian success in operation to combat pharmaceutical crime

Health, Finance and Interior Ministries closely involved in global Operation Pangea X

This year, the Austrian Federal Ministry of Finance, jointly with the Ministry of Health and the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES), the regulatory body for pharmaceuticals and healthcare safety, as well as the Austrian Ministry of the Interior, once again succeeded in confiscating a large number of illegal medicines, thereby protecting Austrian consumers from harm.

The operation was undertaken in close collaboration between the Ministries of Finance and the Interior; under the coordination of the Austrian Federal Criminal Intelligence Service, Austria's Regional Criminal Intelligence Services also participated in the operation. During the active period of the operation, several suspect international websites were identified in respect of the illegal sale of medicines and reported to Interpol in order for the sites to be shut down. In addition, potentially related Austrian addresses were checked. The drug-based compounds and presumably-forged medicines seized were confiscated for the purpose of further examination.

As in previous years, several agencies from customs, the Federal Criminal Intelligence Service and Regional Criminal Intelligence Services, as well as the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety, also responsible for the regulation of medicines, worked side by side. This year, the focus in Austria was on newly-evolving distribution channels; the ever-growing trade on the internet – and thus also the prohibited trade in illegal pharmaceuticals – is resorting increasingly to the use of alternative distributors in its selling operations. In addition to the typical avenue of ordinary mail, new parcel services are also being increasingly used, such as GLS, UPS, DPD, DHL and Hermes. Since, to date, it is principally the postal service which has been intensively monitored by the customs authorities, illegal suppliers are increasingly switching to such alternative distribution channels.

Austria-wide controls on major delivery services

In Austria, the international Operation PANGEA X against trade in illegal pharmaceuticals therefore focused this year to a greater extent on checking packages handled by major alternative delivery services. For this purpose, across Austria, extensive package checks were undertaken at a total of nine locations.

In the main action, which began during the night and continued into the early hours of the morning, over 50 customs and police officers as well as specially-trained inspectors from the pharmaceuticals regulator succeeded in checking several thousand packages and examining them in situ using mobile x-ray equipment.

A further international focus this year consisted of the attempt to track down highly-potent synthetic opioids, in some cases 120 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin in their effect, and which, in a context of unregulated use, often present a risk to life.

"These substances, normally used to treat severe pain, being extremely potent painkillers only available on prescription, have found their way into the drug scene via illegal channels, where they are being increasingly abused. The synthetic opioids are in some cases so potent that if the investigators themselves come across this active ingredient in powder form, they themselves are exposed to a significant risk, since breathing in the substance may cause serious breathing disturbances or even respiratory arrest or death," explained Christoph Baumgärtel of the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety. "Thus, if they come across a suspicious substance, the investigators must themselves take extensive precautionary measures to protect themselves, such as using breathing masks. Even just 2 or 3 mg can be fatal," explained Baumgärtel.

Most recently, a total of 120 packages containing almost 4,700 tablets, vials or capsules of illegal pharmaceuticals have been found. This also included the hazardous opiate derivatives and opioids which Interpol had recommended as being this year's focus. In addition, 22 consignments of drugs (cocaine, cannabis, ecstasy, etc.), chemical precursors of drugs, tens of thousands of cigarettes, liquids and accessories for e-cigarettes, prohibited weapons (flick knives and bayonets) and one possibly protected work of art were seized. All products were handed over to the relevant laboratory services for further investigation and criminal prosecution.

Operation Pangea now in its 10th phase

The project Pangea I was launched in 2008 with eight participating nations. Over the years, the number of participants involved in the fight against pharmaceutical crime has expanded rapidly. In Austria, the Agency for Health and Food Safety, the Federal Criminal Intelligence Service and Austrian Customs have all been involved jointly in the operation to combat the sale of illegal medicines on the internet. This year, the international week of action was expanded by way of further operations over a timeframe of an entire month.

This year, Operation Pangea X took place from 19 August to 19 September 2017 – the focus being the international week from 12 – 19 September. In addition to the basic ambition of protecting public health, the aim of the operation is also to seize forged products, to locate illegal producers and dealers, and to close down the websites of criminal suppliers. The focus this year was on internet infrastructure, electronic payment systems and, in particular, delivery services. In addition, a further aim of the project is to draw public attention to the risks of buying pharmaceutical products on the internet.