Thousands of drugs stolen by mafia-related gangs have infiltrated the UK supply chain, according to a Channel 4 investigation.

The drugs are believed to have been stolen in Italy between 2011 and 2014 by criminal gangs linked to the mafia. More than 10,000 units had been imported into Britain by 2014, according to a Channel 4 Dispatches programme called How safe are your medicines that aired last night (17 June).

According to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by the programme Dispatches, the epilepsy drug Lyrica was among the 25 different types of stolen medicines that were bought by British drug firms. Lyrica was one of the four types of stolen drugs that were then supplied to UK pharmacies, it added.

However, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) stressed that the drugs were ‘legitimate medicines’ and therefore the risk to patients was ‘very low’.

MHRA chief executive Ian Hudson said: ‘In 2014, following reports of medicines being stolen in Italy and sold to the UK, we undertook an investigation and acted to make sure products on the UK market were safe. We received this information more than a year after the thefts occurred.

‘Instances where falsified medicines have penetrated the system are very rare and should be considered against the backdrop of more than 1 billion prescription items dispensed annually in England and Wales alone.’


How did the stolen medicines enter the supply chain?


The stolen drugs are believed to have entered the UK supply chain in 2014, when an unnamed German wholesaler bought a ‘suspicious batch’ of the breast cancer treatment Herceptin, according to the Dispatches investigation. The drugs were subsequently shown to have been ‘tampered with and [be] ineffective’, Dispatches said.

The German wholesaler said it had bought the stock from an unnamed UK wholesaler, according to Dispatches.

The MHRA stressed that the medicines in question are not counterfeit and are only classed as falsified medicines because they were stolen from and subsequently reintroduced to the regulated supply chain.


UK wholesaler that bought medicines ‘took all required action’


Dispatches claimed that ‘by far the largest purchaser’ of the stolen drugs was Trident Pharmaceuticals – which is owned by LloydsPharmacy’s US parent company McKesson.

Trident bought more than 4,000 units of Lyrica from a Spanish company in 2014, it claimed.

Trident told The Pharmacist: ‘In August 2014, we were asked by…the MHRA to quarantine some medicines as part of an investigation. We took all action required of us and quarantined the items immediately.

‘The MHRA did not request a product recall. In October 2014, following their assessment, the MHRA advised us in writing to release the quarantined stock as they did “not believe it to be a risk to public health”.’