MEDISAFE works with 25 national and international experts in pharmaceutical, legal and law enforcement to deliver its strategy. In this third volume of “Hear from the Experts”, we are speaking to one of our two law enforcement experts, who is kept anonymous for confidentiality and security reasons. He is specialized in countering the transnational organized crime and operating in the illicit production and trafficking of substandard and falsified medical products. As part of his work, he provides technical and operational support on monitoring threats, surveillance and gathering led intelligence. He provides capacity building for law enforcement agencies in our 11 partner countries to strengthen their police capabilities and support them to put in place protocols and procedures for an efficient identification and control of SFMP.
Which law enforcement bodies are involved in relation to substandard and falsified medical products (SFMP), and what are their roles?
Law enforcement expert: Crime related to SFMP is carried out by transnational organized criminal groups (TOCs). These groups use complex ecosystems and criminal methods ranging from manufacturing illicit raw materials to packaging. Transnational organized crime always aims to be two steps ahead of law enforcement. To combat SFMP-related crime, ongoing coordination between eight national law enforcement bodies is crucial. Coordination begins on the front line, with the national customs authorities controlling entry and exit of maritime transport, air and land borders. In collaboration with the national health safety authorities that represent the second structure of coordination, customs services work with national intelligence to carry out tailored searches. National intelligence services, also known as criminal investigation departments are the third structure, they gather national and international information on suspicious shipments, which is then shared with customs. Immigration authorities are the fourth structure, their role is to arrest and question suspects found in possession of SFMP. The fifth structure is the forensic police that carries out official tests on the packaging of suspicious SFMP or on fraudulent or counterfeit shipping documents. Financial crime units, in collaboration with national cybercrime units, are the sixth structure. They identify fraudulent transactions carried out by organized crime groups. The seventh structure of coordination include the national central bureaus of the international police organizations, such as INTERPOL and AFRIPOL. They act as specialized units by sharing international intelligence and processing the extradition of identified criminals. The last coordination structure is the criminal analysis units, which gather all the information from different police units and conduct operational and strategic criminal analysis.
What major challenges do these bodies face in the 11 MEDISAFE project partner countries?
L.E.E.: The first challenge is the implementation of a complete border management on a huge geographic area. The large scale of these areas enables TOC activity, as it makes it more difficult to identify illegal entry and exit routes. Lack of border surveillance regulation is another challenge: 39% of member states have limited regulatory procedures despite the fact that crimes related to SFMP are considered low risk and high profit activities for criminal groups. In addition, trade from Southeast Asia to the East African region has increased over the past 20 years, which has led to an increase with SFMP related criminal activity. Currently, 90% of SFMP found in the region are produced and shipped from Asia. Therefore, the region requires specialized officers to identify SFMP, track illegal financial crimes and gather intelligence. The socioeconomics context is also considered as a challenge. Economic crises are increasing the demand for SFMP, fostering corruption and recruitment of facilitators to support the illicit smugglings. Moreover, we observe a limited cybercrime capacity of to identify illegal online marketplace, as well as a lack of expertise, police equipment and centralized databases between the different law enforcement agencies that are essential to monitor, investigate and track shipments. The last challenge is the absence of national legal framework and penal codes that are relevant to prosecute the online trading of SFMP.
What is the MEDISAFE project approach to improving checks and screening of substandard and falsified medical products?
L.E.E.: The MEDISAFE project takes the three-pronged approach recommended by WHO: prevention, detection and response. Improving monitoring and screening of SFMP is part of the second component. The project is helping to set up systems to detect SFMP that are already present in the supply chain. In this regard, we have integrated operational procedures to the first-line detection into trainings for the partner countries:
Under the MEDISAFE project, a tool has recently been developed to support partner countries with this, can you tell us about it?
L.E.E.: The MEDISAFE project has successfully published Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) developed by law enforcement experts for partner countries. The document sets out various initiatives and good practices observed by experts. When combined with other strategical and operational undertakings, they pose an integral part in combatting the rising threat of SFMP, their manufacture and distribution. The SOPs also make recommendations to improve the response and reduce the impact of criminal activities and campaigns in East and Central Africa. Prepared with the support and contributions from partner countries, the SOPs are aimed at policymakers and law enforcement bodies: national and border police, customs, judicial police services, national regulatory authorities for medicines and medicinal products and ministerial decision-makers.
What interventions have taken place, particularly in terms international and regional police cooperation?
L.E.E.: Under the MEDISAFE project, we provided training to national officers and regulators in beneficiary countries on national, regional and international police cooperation. We have shared concrete examples of suspects that have been identified, collection of criminal evidences through joint investigation between several countries, arrest and extradition carried out to prosecute the suspects.
What public awareness and cooperation with the private sector has taken place in this regard?
L.E.E.: I am very pleased that this topic has come up in this interview, as it is crucial in terms of combatting SFMP-related crime. Public awareness involves alerting populations to the impact of SFMP on their health, and helping them to identify them. These interventions are very important while the cyber criminality is on the rise. We have therefore shared good practices on this subject as part of the project. We have also provided law enforcement investigators with the right techniques to cooperate with digital companies (platforms and social networks) to obtain information on cybercriminals linked to SFMP while respecting personal data protection and the regulation of these companies. The private sector has a major role to play in raising public awareness by launching campaigns, in collaboration with the public sector, to facilitate the identification of SFMP.
What good practices have you observed in the region related to combating substandard and falsified medical product crimes?
L.E.E.: We have observed that law enforcement and national regulators are aware of the threat posed by crimes related to SFMP. We have seen a very high level of commitment, growth and expertise among both regulators and police officers. Most importantly, they are responsive to the needs of other units and have a strong sense of responsibility to the community. One of the best practices observed in some of the 11 beneficiary countries of MEDISAFE’s project is the advanced security port structures with exceptional databases and security systems capacity. This means that all other countries can achieve this high level of port security, but will need adequate funding for border control, port security and capacity building.
What would be your main recommendation in terms of police operations?
L.E.E.: We recommend that law enforcement agencies work closely with border and customs officials. This would allow for proactive operational deployments at irregular border crossing points. In most cases, when intelligence indicates a threat of illegal trafficking outside of border areas, the police respond with law enforcement operations without involving the health regulators assigned at the closest border management checkpoints. This lack of collaboration creates a more favorable environment for SFMP imports. Improving coordination with health officials would ensure strong prevention of SFMP at borders and customs checkpoints. Greater collaboration with specialist pharmaceutical officers is also needed to ensure the adequate collection of admissible evidence and reporting to enable a successful prosecution.
A seminar was held in Ghana 27-31 March, what was the objective and what was the outcome?
L.E.E.: The objective of the seminar was to develop the capacity of police, customs officers and inspectors of national drug regulatory authorities. The aim was to improve their skills in identifying, detecting and monitoring SFMP, to improve inter-agency cooperation at the national and regional levels, and to facilitate the exchange of operational information among them. Four MEDISAFE partner countries were invited: Ghana, Malawi, Seychelles and Zambia. We observed a great cooperation between the countries and specialized units. What made the seminar even more interesting is discussions held between the senior officers where inter-regional cases have been shared with led-intelligence and a willingness to move forward with a joint operational action. At the end of the seminar, the Ghanaian authorities invited all participants to visit the seaport in Accra. Participants were able to explore their advanced security procedures and excellent national coordination to combat illegal shipments of SFMP.
What is the next planned activity related to law enforcement?
L.E.E.: We plan to attend the steering committee meeting where all MEDISAFE project experts, stakeholders and partners in the pharmaceutical, legal and law enforcement fields will meet to discuss the project and share their successes and expertise around prevention, detection and response. This will also provide an opportunity to propose new project phases to member countries for additional support to combat SFMP-related crime.