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LONDON (Reuters) - A British man was jailed for eight years on Friday for his role in supplying more than 2 million doses of fake medicines in the most serious known case of counterfeit drugs getting into the European supply chain.
Faking prescription drugs is a lucrative and growing criminal business and Peter Gillespie, 64, was involved in a global network stretching from China to Belgium and Mauritius to supply drugs and launder money, a British court heard.
Investigators from Britain's medicines watchdog said the case was particularly alarming given the serious conditions for which the medicines were used -- schizophrenia, heart disease and prostate cancer.
A total of 25,000 packs containing 700,000 fake doses of Eli Lilly's Zyprexa, Sanofi-Aventis's Plavix and AstraZeneca's Casodex reached pharmacies and patients in care centers, hospitals and at home across Britain in 2007.
A further 47,000 packs were either seized by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) from a warehouse or recalled from the supply chain.
Four other men were acquitted in the case, the MHRA said in a statement.
Nimo Ahmed, head of intelligence at the MHRA, said the bogus drugs had put the health of thousands of Britons in jeopardy, since they contained only 50-80 percent of active ingredient plus unknown impurities, though no deaths or adverse events had been definitively linked to the incident.
Gillespie and associates stood to make a profit of more than 3 million pounds ($4.9 million) from the drugs, which were manufactured in China and had a retail value of 4.7 million pounds.
Plans were also well under way to bring in three other counterfeit medicines for Alzheimer's, epilepsy and schizophrenia -- Pfizer's and Eisai's Aricept, UCB's Keppra and Johnson & Johnson's Risperdal.
"They didn't get to bring them in but they were definitely well on the way to being prepared to receive them," Mick Deats, the MHRA's head of enforcement, told reporters.
The three fake drugs that did get in -- shipped via Hong Kong, Singapore and Belgium -- were all packaged as French medicines and were designed for sale in Britain through so-called parallel trade.
The drugs industry has long complained that the legal practice of parallel trade -- in which drugs are bought and repackaged for resale in countries where prices are higher -- is a weak link in the supply chain.
The MHRA, however, said this was the first known case of counterfeiters using parallel trade. It came to light because a licensed repackager noticed that an embossed number on a blister pack was reversed and reported it to the authorities.
Another person connected to the case had already been convicted in the United States after trying to sell counterfeit medicines there. Kevin Xu was jailed for 6-1/2 years in June 2008 after discussing a supply deal with undercover agents.
Counterfeit medicines are common on unregulated websites and are also rife in the developing world, where they represent a major health hazard, according to the World Health Organization.
They are rare in Europe. However, the MHRA has conducted one recall in Britain since the 2007 case and several consignments have been intercepted en route into the country.
(Editing by David Holmes and Will Waterman)