LONDON Authorities in nine countries have raided businesses suspected of supplying medicines illegally over the Internet in an unprecedented global swoop coordinated by Interpol, officials said on Thursday.
The operation, codenamed Pangea, involved dozens of locations in Britain, Germany, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, Canada and the United States.
The raids on Wednesday mark the first time that such action has been taken on an international scale, an Interpol spokeswoman said.
Illicit sales of medicines via the Web are a growing problem, since many of the products are counterfeits of dubious quality and potentially dangerous.
Britain's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which raided 12 residential and commercial premises in the crackdown, said illegal Internet sales posed a serious risk to public health.
"A medicine bought in this way has no guarantee that it is safe or that it is effective and can in fact be harmful," Danny Lee-Frost, head of operations, said in a statement.
"Our messages are simple -- do not buy prescription-only medicines over the Internet without a prescription and if you are illegally selling or supplying medicines, we will use all appropriate measures available to stop you."
In many countries, the abuse and trafficking of prescription drugs now equals or exceeds the use of illicitly manufactured heroin, cocaine, amphetamine and opioids, according to the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board.
In Britain, operation Pangea resulted in the seizure of computers, documents and more than a thousand packs of unlicensed medicines.
Products seized including drugs claiming to treat conditions such as diabetes, impotency, obesity, hair loss and male breast growth as a side effect from bodybuilding steroid abuse.
The Internet provides an easy channel because there are no national control mechanisms.
Properly regulated, Internet pharmacies can provide a valuable service by increasing competition and offering access to treatments in underserved areas.
But the online world is also a Wild West of spam e-mails and hard-to-trace suppliers, according to healthcare regulators.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)