Europol coordinated the third edition of operation Shield, a global effort to target trafficking of counterfeit and misused medicines and doping substances. The operation was led by France, Greece, Italy and Spain, and involved police and customs authorities from 28 countries (19 EU Member States and 9 third-party countries). The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) coordinated the customs agencies while the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) offered financial support. Frontex, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and national medicine agencies further supported the operation, which took place between April and October 2022.
During the operation, law enforcement officers dismantled 59 criminal groups and arrested or reported to the judicial authorities 349 suspects. Simultaneously, authorities seized massive amounts of misused, falsified or counterfeit medicines, doping products and substances and illegal food and sport supplements, as well as counterfeit COVID vaccines, sanitary products and medical devices. Doping substances and medicines for erectile dysfunction were amongst the most seized items. In order to increase prevention and awareness, some participating states launched anti-doping campaigns and performed both ‘in-competition’ and ‘out-of-competition’ controls.
Operation Shield III in a nutshell:
- seizures worth over EUR 40 million
- more than 10.5 million units of medicines and doping substances seized
- over 1 million counterfeit COVID tests seized
- 195 investigations carried out
- 349 suspects arrested or reported to judicial authorities
- 59 organised crime groups investigated
- 10 underground labs shut down
- 588 websites monitored
- 89 websites shut down
- over 218 000 shipments checked
- over 74 000 shipments seized
- 3 526 anti-doping controls ‘in-competition’ carried out (39 positive)
- 3 245 anti-doping controls ‘out-of-competition’ carried out (9 positive)
Misuse of medicine a serious societal issue
The trade and consumption of medicines not prescribed by medical professionals or a medical framework continues to pose a social problem, fostering illegal activity. Misuse spans the desire for psychotropic, recreational or performance-enhancing effects and extends to unintended means of consumption. This can cause growth in demand that is unable to be legally met, which incentivises trafficking – mostly with product diverted from the legitimate supply chain.
In addition, falsified medicines are introduced among those diverted from the legitimate supply chain. These are manufactured in underground laboratories where criminals work under questionable hygienic circumstances and safety measures, leading to health risks for end consumers. Furthermore, counterfeit medicines will often not produce the desired effect and leave the consumer untreated.
Medicine trafficking lucrative for organised crime
In the course of the operation, many cases of large-scale medicine trafficking were uncovered, confirming that it can be as lucrative as or even more lucrative than narcotics trafficking. While these crimes generate massive illicit gains for traffickers and counterfeiters, the public finances and the social care systems of some Member States are inflicted with massive financial costs. The public health cost is also significant, be it because of treatment of addictive behaviours or the consequences of overdoses or stock shortage.
Organised crime group dismantled in Greece
The Greek Financial Police Division disrupted an organised crime group with a hierarchical structure, distinct roles and a years-long history of smuggling anabolic steroids and other illegal pharmaceutical products such as erectile dysfunction remedies. Members of this particular group were active in Greece and held other minor hubs in Europe, the US and Asia.
Two labs in Greece were used to turn raw material trafficked through Moldova and Bulgaria into various products. Sales were conducted through websites and encrypted e-mail addresses to an international clientele including dozens of professional athletes. A large-scale police operation led to the arrest of one leading member of the organised crime group and the seizure of more than 2.4 million units of anabolic steroids and other illicit substances, as well as packaging material.
Significant reduction in COVID-19-related trafficking
While criminal networks are still exploiting opportunities offered by the COVID-19 pandemic, trafficking with medicines and protective equipment has met a significant decrease due to the high attention to the topic and intense monitoring by law enforcement. Governments offering the vaccines at no cost contributed to creating a disadvantageous situation for criminals aiming to feed an illegal market. Several fraud attempts targeting national bodies responsible for the supply of medicines and protective devices could be detected and thwarted.