Officials in Four European Countries Investigating ‘Wide Web’ of Fraud Involving Diversion of AIDS Drugs From African Nations
Law enforcement officials in "at least" four European countries will meet today to exchange evidence indicating a "wide web of trafficking" schemes in which discounted antiretroviral drugs earmarked for developing nations were diverted back to Europe and sold at large profits, the New York Times reports. Investigators from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and France are scheduled to meet today at Europol, the European police agency, to exchange evidence on the investigations (Crouch, New York Times, 10/29). Drug maker GlaxoSmithKline estimates that 28 shipments of Combivir, Epivir and Trizivir were diverted by European wholesalers from Africa to markets in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom between July 2001 and July 2002. The 28 shipments comprised three million doses of the drugs and had an estimated retail value of $18 million; they were intended for distribution in five central African nations (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 10/15). Although only two individuals have been arrested in conjunction with the smuggling, officials suspect that there is "a whole chain of businesses and individuals involved" in the fraud. One individual familiar with Dutch health authorities said that getting to the bottom of the scheme may be difficult because the companies under investigation may have operated like money launderers by moving their transactions through several other companies. In an effort to curtail drug diversion, the European Commission will publish new enforcement guidelines tomorrow that call for more border checks and tighter customs procedures (New York Times, 10/29). The commission also wants to label discounted drugs in order to allow customs authorities to distinguish them from other medicines. Commissioners from the 20 E.U. member nations would have to approve the plan, which could be voted on as early as tomorrow (Dombey et al., Financial Times, 10/29).
Involvement of AIDS Groups
In addition, investigators are trying to determine whether the fraud is "institutionally based" because the "sheer volume" of the diverted drugs "suggests some kind of concerted effort in Europe and Africa," according to law enforcement officials. The Times reports that there is "evidence that some of the humanitarian organizations that distribute the drugs in Africa at least knew that the products were being resold." For example, medicine slated for the Senegalese organization Africa Helps Africa was reimported into Europe. In response to the news, Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade dismissed the organization's chief executive, Latif Gueye, stating that Gueye had committed "extremely serious errors" in connection with the reimportation. Gueye defended his actions, saying that there was "simply a surplus" of drugs that he wanted to exchange for "other much-needed drugs and equipment." In addition, a German businessman arrested in conjunction with the fraud said that he "was contacted by a nongovernmental organization in the Congo Republic that was interested in selling" some of its Glaxo-manufactured antiretroviral drugs "so it could afford to buy other AIDS drugs." Some AIDS groups are concerned that the allegations of involvement by NGOs in the fraud will damage their reputation and their ability to provide care. "It's horrifying if NGOs or anybody else is involved in this. The people who are ultimately going to pay for this are those without adequate access to drugs," Rachel Cohen, a spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders, said (New York Times, 10/29).