Italian customs officers have seized 600,000 counterfeit condoms among a shipment of forged goods at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport.
Officials in Civitavecchia, in the province of Rome, have arrested 20 people as part of their investigation, many of them Chinese nationals. According to investigators, the condoms were made in China and stockpiled in Albania before arriving in Italy.
The police said Tuesday that the condoms — which they described as "perfect imitations of the leading international brands" — were defective and unfit for human use. Testing undertaken in an official laboratory revealed that the prophylactics had been made using noxious chemicals and had not been properly sterilized.
According to officials, the logo of British condom-maker Durex was featured on the packaging and on the information leaflet inside the box. Italian news agency La Presse said that the forgery was so convincing, even "the most highly trained eye" would have a hard time spotting it.
Durex did not respond to VICE News's requests for comment on Wednesday.
Officers from the Guardia di Finanza — the Italian law enforcement agency responsible for dealing with financial crime and smuggling — seized more than a million forged articles from the shipment, including 150,000 pieces of costume jewelery and 500,000 dietary supplements.
According to news site Roma Today, some of the supplements were replicas of Via-Ananas slimming pills — a weight-loss supplement made primarily from pineapples that can be purchased online through specialized sites.
Bernard Leroy, director of the International Institute of Research Against Counterfeit Medicines (IRACM), told VICE News that in 2013, the IRACM estimated that 700,000 people had died worldwide as a result of ingesting counterfeit medicine.
The increasing prevalence of counterfeit drugs, he said, has been compounded by the rise in Internet trade and by burgeoning trafficking routes. In 2014 alone, authorities worldwide seized 550 million individual counterfeit doses of medicine, he said.
Leroy explained that the fight against counterfeit drugs "depends vastly on the goodwill of national authorities, particularly in Africa and Asia."
Counterfeit drugs make up 1 percent of all medicine sold in Europe — a figure that soars to 20 percent in Russia, and 30 percent in Africa, where "the many street markets make it very difficult to trace [the drugs]."
"In Europe, it's mostly drugs that people are too embarrassed to buy in a pharmacy, such as Viagra, diet pills, or anabolic steroids," said Leroy, who said the trafficking networks were becoming more and more like "criminal, and even terrorist, groups."
Leroy mentioned Captagon, an amphetamine being smuggled into the Middle East by jihadists, "to improve the performance of fighters and to calm down prisoners ahead of filmed executions."
Many organizations are mobilized in the fight to stop the trafficking of counterfeit drugs, including the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (ONUDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and Interpol.
According to IRACM, counterfeit anti-malaria drugs caused the deaths of 122,350 children in Africa in 2013. A Wall Street Journal article from May 29, 2013, found that counterfeits seized in Luanda, Angola, contained none of the active ingredients in the real drug, but were instead made of "calcium phosphates, fatty acids and yellow pigment."
Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c
Image via Paul Keller / Flickr