x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Customs in $70 million haul of fake sex pills

Seven million fake Viagra pills are seized by Dubai Customs but may just be the 'tip of the iceberg'.

Spot the difference: Ahmed Butti Ahmed, the director general of Dubai Customs, shows the genuine and counterfeit drugs during a press conference yesterday.
Spot the difference: Ahmed Butti Ahmed, the director general of Dubai Customs, shows the genuine and counterfeit drugs during a press conference yesterday.

DUBAI // The seizure of seven million sexual stimulant and fertility drug tablets was just the "tip of the iceberg", according to the head of security at the company that manufactures Viagra. Almost two-thirds of the haul, seized on May 6, were either fake versions of Viagra, which is made by Pfizer, or illegal generic versions that should not be entering UAE ports.

Steve Allen, the head of Pfizer's global security for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the counterfeiters could have made at least US$4million (Dh14.6m) from the fake Viagra alone, had the drugs entered the market. The total, he added, could be worth anything up to $70m if each tablet had a street value of around $10, the average price of a Viagra pill. "This is the tip of the iceberg," he said. "I would expect there have been many other sets of seven million tablets that have gone unnoticed here.

"It's only what we see that we can act on. But we don't see the other two-thirds of the iceberg that lies below the ocean." In December, UAE officials said the country must tighten its border controls and increase co-operation between enforcement agencies to curb the growing trend on counterfeit drugs. Dubai Custom seized the pills after receiving intelligence information about the existence of forged goods in a warehouse in the dry port.

Ahmed Butti Ahmed, the general director of Dubai Customs, said that the drugs came from an Arab country. He declined to name the country, saying it would harm the investigation. "There are organised criminal gangs who are involved in the selling of counterfeit medicine active in the region," said Mr Ahmed. He added that Dubai is especially involved, as it is a shipping centre. Dubai Customs registered 150 cases of counterfeit goods confiscation in the first quarter of this year, according to Mr Ahmed. He did not say how many were counterfeit medicines.

Mr Allen, a former drugs officer with the Metropolitan Police in London, said free zone ports were opportunities counterfeiters did not want to miss. "General goods distributors want to get their goods to market as quickly as possible," he said. "So they use the free trade zones because they don't attract so much scrutiny from customs officials. The counterfeiters have cottoned on to that, so they do the same thing."

The global figures back this up. About nine per cent of the fake medicines stopped at European borders in 2008 were shipped from the UAE, making it the third largest importer after India and Syria. It was also the leading importer of fake cigarettes and the second leading importer of counterfeit food, beverages and cosmetics. Figures for last year have not yet been published. Earlier tests on counterfeit versions of Pfizer's medicines, including Viagra and the cholesterol medication Lipitor, revealed disturbing results.

Arsenic, talcum powder, leaded road paint and an amphetamine have all been found in the tablets. One manufacturer, Mr Allen said, used blue inkjet cartridges to give the tablets their trademark blue colour. Although information on the origin of the latest haul was not disclosed, counterfeit manufacturing factories have been found in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Yasar Yaman, the Dubai-based regional director of global security for Pfizer, said he did not think the UAE played a role in the manufacturing of the potentially lethal medicines.

He was confident, however, that there were people based here helping the drugs to pass through the ports. "Counterfeiters use free zones all over the world to make the shipment route more complicated; this is not easy to do," he said. "There may be an importer in Dubai receiving the shipment from China, for example. It reaches the next destination under a new name so it is hard to trace." Mr Allen and Mr Yaman stressed the importance of good communication in the fight against the illegal trade.

Pfizer, they said, was working hard to build better relations with Dubai authorities and create stronger intelligence within the port network. Extra measures such as training sniffer dogs are also being taken. And the pharmaceutical giant has two distributors in the UAE who are always on the look out for potential fakes. "The agents delivering to pharmacies will see what's on the shelves and know when to report anything suspicious," said Mr Allen. "It's exceptionally important that we track back.

"We are still in our early stages of building up a relationship with customs officers. We will share more information in the future. We can provide fantastic intelligence. They may be receiving products from a company that we are already investigating. Communication is essential." munderwood@thenational.ae wissa@thenational.ae