Exposed: the fake Viagra racket
11 January 2004
It is an offer that many men searching for the sexual wonderdrug Viagra find difficult to resist: the little blue tablets for sale at cut price, with no strings attached and no need for an embarrassing visit to the doctor.
All it takes is a simple and discreet deal over the internet with paypill.com. The website makes a series of reassuring promises. Its Viagra is guaranteed as authentic, and its sales overseen by qualified British and US doctors. It has offices in the United States, London, Paris and Geneva. And its prices are "unbelievably low". It even boasts that there are "no cons" and "no worries" buying Viagra with paypill.com.
But an investigation by The Independent on Sunday has uncovered a very different story - one which raises fears about potential health risks for Viagra users, allegations about the abuse of the internet, breaches of medicine safety laws, and a potentially world-wide fraud.
Despite paypill.com's repeated assurances that its Viagra is genuine, the drug it sells is fake.
Pfizer, the US drugs giant which invented and owns Viagra, has carried out laboratory tests which showed the tablets sold by paypill.com were counterfeit. Its analysis found it used a copy of Viagra's active ingredient, sildenafil citrate, but not in the correct form.
The Viagra packets it puts them in are also forged - unauthorised copies of the real boxes Pfizer uses in Britain. And the name "Viagra Plus" printed on the "blister pack" carrying paypill.com's tablets is not a real Pfizer brand.
In a statement, Pfizer said: "We confirm that the sample has been found to consist of counterfeit packaging and tablets. The tablets contained sildenafil citrate but in a formulation distinctly not conforming to that of authentic Viagra."
This disclosure is the first proven case in Britain of a website selling counterfeit Viagra, but it highlights a global problem with fake drugs and their illegal sale on the Web. The US Food and Drug Administration estimates that one-tenth of all medicines sold worldwide is counterfeit - a trade the police warn is increasingly linked to organised crime. One of the most frequently faked is Viagra, because so much money can be made - Pfizer charges the NHS about £6 per 100ml tablet. Paypill.com prices start at £8.50.
Further inquiries have shown that the company behind the website, originally called David Elson Productions Ltd, was disqualified from doing IoS Investigation: The blue pills in the picture look like Viagra. The packaging says they are Viagra. You can buy them on the net for 'unbelievably low prices'. That's because they are fake. Severin Carrell uncovers a dangerous and illegal trade business by regulators in the US almost four years ago, and that its office in London is a front.
Paypill.com says its London office is at one of the capital's most prestigious addresses: Regent Street. The address appears on the dispatch notes that come with its counterfeit Viagra, claiming that its "Priority Dispatch Department" is based at Suite 401, Langham House, 302 Regent Street.
Yet Langham House is not on Regent Street but on a side road called Margaret Street. It houses small office suites for rent. The front door is kept locked and there are no names beside the bells for each suite - nothing to suggest this is the base for a thriving internet pharmacy company.
In Langham House, Suite 401 is actually the offices for Hold Everything - a business that acts as an "accommodation address" for hundreds of companies. Warren Jackson, who runs Hold Everything, refused to give out any contact details for Mr Elson or his close associate John Yonge.
Verifying other addresses given on paypill.com proved equally fruitless. There is no telephone number listed for David Elson Ltd at the address given in the US town of Wilmington in Delaware - a state that is infamous for its relaxed company registration legislation. According to Delaware's business regulator's office, David Elson Productions Ltd was "voided" on 1 March 2000 for non-payment of an annual $30 registration tax.
Calls to paypill.com's British contact number reach a woman called Valerie, who claimed to be a "sub-contractor" who just takes messages. Their number in Paris is answered by a machine.
The firm is also unusually coy about the ultimate ownership of the paypill.com web address. Attempts to trace the site's "registration" details by using publicly accessible, free databases drew a blank.
Further investigations disclosed that the website is based in the US but registered to Mr Yonge in Peron, a French town near the Swiss border and Geneva. Local telephone directories have no number listed for Mr Yonge.
As a result of the IoS's discoveries, investigators from the Government's medicines safety agency - the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) - trading standards officers and Pfizer's own security division are on paypill.com's trail.
When contacted, Mr Elson insisted his supplies were genuine, and said all orders to paypill.com were "screened" by a medical practitioner. In an email to the IoS, he said: "We can state categorically that all tablets supplied by us are manufactured by Pfizer. However, they are not of European origin. Along with many other companies ... we purchase tablets imported from Northern and Central America." Yet his claims were again refuted by Pfizer, which insisted their sample was a fake.
Westminster Council trading standards officers are to demand an interview with Mr Elson and Mr Yonge. If they refuse to co-operate, the council could involve the police and the Office of Fair Trading. Sue Jones, Westminster's director of trading standards, said: "We will look into this as a matter of urgency."
The MHRA is already cracking down on the illegal sale of Viagra over the internet, as well as back-street sales of counterfeit Viagra. It seized £2.4m worth of the drug last year, and successfully prosecuted several people for illegal sales.
MHRA investigators are also expected to focus on paypill.com's claims that internet applications are vetted by a doctor. It is illegal to sell a prescription-only medicine, such as Viagra or pills with sildenafil citrate, without a prescription and without using a registered pharmacist.
Any British doctor employed by paypill.com risks being struck off by the General Medical Council, the regulatory body for doctors. The GMC has ruled it unacceptable for a GP to issue prescriptions without seeing the patient, because that could "seriously compromise standards of care". In 2002, it suspended a GP for three months for issuing internet prescriptions.
In common with Pfizer and the MHRA, the GMC argues that internet prescribing is dangerous because the doctor cannot know if the patient is lying about his or her medical condition, will not have an accurate medical history and cannot do follow-up diagnoses to check the patient's health.
Sildenafil citrate can cause serious problems if taken by patients on certain drugs. It has been implicated in a number of deaths. There are also risks posed by "strenuous activity" for men with weak hearts.
Pfizer's New York-based head of global security, John Theriault, told the IoS: "We will very thoroughly pursue any case where we can demonstrate that illegal activity is going on. We will turn that information over to the authorities and encourage vigorous prosecution."
Web drug sales bring health risk
The counterfeit Viagra exposed today on this page carries a very real health risk to anyone who takes it, writes Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor. Sildenafil citrate, the active ingredient in the drug, can provoke a life-threatening reaction in people with heart conditions and may be dangerous in those with liver or kidney problems.
It is also unsuitable for people with high blood pressure, ulcers and certain inherited disorders of the retina of the eye. That is why a careful medical assessment by a doctor is essential.
Other types of fake Viagra not containing the active ingredient - made of chalk, for instance, with a little blue colouring - may do nothing worse than bring a disappointing end to a romantic evening. But there is no way of knowing what counterfeit drugs contain - and that is where the danger lies. Some include the active ingredient but in different quantities or with different additives from the genuine drug. Some have the wrong ingredients, or the wrong labelling or are contaminated with impurities.
As one of the most widely prescribed "lifestyle" drugs in the world, Viagra is a favourite target for counterfeiters. But many others have yielded fat profits for the criminal gangs that are behind the trade. Selling fake medicines is hugely lucrative and carries low risks, and it has attracted the attention of organised crime as a substitute for the narcotics trade. It has become a global scourge that costs hundreds of thousands of lives. The World Health Organisation, for example, estimates that 200,000 of the annual one million deaths from malaria may be attributable to counterfeit or substandard drugs.