Drugs giant to tackle trade in fake Viagra

Dozens of websites selling fake Viagra over the internet have been closed down as part of a worldwide crackdown on counterfeit drug sales by the medicines giant Pfizer.

The company's legal action, which hit websites based in the UK and Gibraltar, comes in the wake of Independent on Sunday revelations that potentially dangerous supplies of fake Viagra were being peddled by British "internet pharmacies".

Pfizer last week launched a series of suits against 30 websites involved in a booming global trade in illicit and unlicensed generic versions of the erectile dysfunction drug.

Its campaign forced the closure of one site registered to a British internet company based in central London, and another site based in Gibraltar. Both were allegedly set up to sell illegal generic copies of the drug and used Viagra in their site addresses - breaching Pfizer's trademark.

Another five overseas websites are being sued for selling fake Viagra - a trade that the safety authorities claim can expose men to potentially lethal products made in backstreet factories.

The IoS revealed earlier this year that one British businessman, John Yonge, was selling fake Viagra from his website by using a front address in London. Laboratory tests proved that his supplies were illegal copies, even though he claimed his pills were "100 per cent genuine".

Mr Yonge, who lives in south-eastern France, said he would abandon the business and claimed he had been misled into believing his supplies were legitimate. But last week, his website was back up and running - exposing another loophole in the supposedly strict rules on the sale of prescription-only drugs such as Viagra in the EU.

The business, paypill.com, is now run from Spain. A spokesman claimed its supplies were now legally purchased and genuine Viagra, that it was now a legally registered Spanish company, and that buying and selling it without a prescription was "totally legal" in Spain.

A Pfizer spokeswoman contested his claim, but admitted the company was frustrated by Spain's "relaxed regime".

She added: "It appears that the supply of Viagra from pharmacies is not controlled - a patient can use the same prescription over and over again. It can even be passed around. Some pharmacies sell Viagra without any prescription and that is merely viewed as a 'minor civil infringement' by the authorities."

Pfizer executives admit their campaign, which will also crack down on the widespread use of "spam" emails selling fake Viagra, will not stop other websites. But they hope their action will alert consumers to the risks of buying from unauthorised online pharmacies.

Industry analysts argue that Pfizer's campaign is driven chiefly by its desire to protect its profits. It has sold billions of dollars'-worth of Viagra since it was first launched in the late 1990s and is lobbying to block "parallel imports" - the legal trade in supplies of the drug from countries where its wholesale price is lower than in Western Europe. Spain is also a centre for legal parallel imports of genuine medicines, Pfizer's senior executives have admitted in the past.

But health authorities, doctors and Pfizer argue that selling an erectile dysfunction drug without examining the user can be risky. There are fears its use could endanger men with weak hearts.

The main question now for Pfizer and the safety authorities is whether the internet is too large for them to control, and the drugs market too lucrative to close down.

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