SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Members of a group accused of generating $650 million in revenue by selling prescription drugs not approved by the FDA to pharmacies in the U.S. have been arrested in one of the largest cases of its kind, federal officials said Thursday.
The drugs were sold from 2007 to 2011 to chain and independent pharmacies across the United States, mostly in cities such as Detroit, New York, Miami and Los Angeles, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Walsh said.
"There was evidence that the drugs were expired and had counterfeit labels, some with incorrect dosages," Walsh said.
He said a portion of those altered drugs were bought by chain pharmacies in Washington, D.C., and Arizona. The drugs sold include Advair, Celebrex, Lipitor, Nasonex, Valtrex and Viagra and others prescribed to treat HIV, cancer and depression, according to an indictment.
Walsh said there had been no reports of adverse health effects from patients who bought the drugs. He said it was unclear what percentage of the drugs sold were expired or otherwise altered.
"It's impossible to trace the pharmaceuticals because the pedigrees were false," he said.
The suspects are accused of submitting fake documents, called pedigrees, to unsuspecting pharmacies that bought the drugs of unknown quality and origin, according to an indictment. The pedigrees falsely stated the drugs were obtained from authorized distributors when they actually originated from a network of unlicensed suppliers based mostly in California and New York, the indictment said.
Authorities said unlicensed suppliers usually obtain diverted pharmaceuticals by buying pills from patients and closed pharmacies or by putting fake labels on expired drugs.
The indictment said that although the suspects inspected the drugs before selling them, the system was not infallible and that chemicals used to remove old labels sometimes seeped through bottles and contaminated pills.
"This group of individuals put lives of the patients at risk by supplying misbranded, adulterated, sub-potent, improperly handled and counterfeit pharmaceuticals," U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said.
Sixteen of the 23 suspects indicted have been arrested, the majority of them in California and New York, Walsh said.
One of the suspects, identified as Martin Thuna, was described as the owner of at least three prescription-drug wholesale companies: Drogueria De La Villa in Puerto Rico, Drogueria Villa in Tennessee and LLC Wholesale Supply in Arizona. The majority of the other suspects are accused of acting as suppliers. All are accused of misrepresenting the source of $440 million worth of the so-called diverted pharmaceutical drugs.
The group faces a total of 61 charges, including conspiracy, mail fraud and unlicensed wholesale distribution of drugs.
The government is looking to seize nearly $650 million in cash, in addition to funds in 27 bank accounts totaling $17.8 million and properties in Las Vegas and California.