Investigations were broadened after reports last month that vials of Roche’s breast cancer drug Herceptin had been stolen in Italy and sold on.
Italy has now alerted authorities throughout Europe after finding that the theft was part of a much wider operation.
“Italy has become the breeding ground for collecting costly products that are then shipped on to other countries across Europe in what is a very lucrative business,” said anti-counterfeiting head Domenico Di Giorgio. The watchdog, along with the Italian anti-fraud squad, industry associations and the health ministry, is collecting data on a problem causing increasing concern for health authorities across Europe.
“All 28 European Union countries and police have been alerted and involved,” Mr Di Giorgio said.
The investigation started with Herceptin – Roche’s third-biggest seller, bringing in 1.53 billion Swiss francs (£1bn) in the first quarter of 2014 – and two other cancer drugs, Alimta and Remicade, but will soon involve more.
Mr Di Giorgio said: “The network is a kind of giant washing-machine for illegally acquired products that focuses on expensive hospital drugs but also steals cargoes from trucks.”
The problem of drug thefts had exploded in the past two years with fake companies in places such as Latvia, Hungary and Romania involved, he added. “Prosecutors in Naples are looking into just who is behind it all, but it’s a very structured web and certainly not local,” he said.