South Africa is fertile ground for counterfeit medicines and other illegal products, which are easily available in shops or online.
An online search for weight-loss supplements, and for Viagra obtainable without a prescription, popped up addresses for at least five websites.
An Interpol co-ordinated operation in 115 countries targeted the sale of fake drugs by illicit online sources.
Working with Google, Mastercard, Paypal, the Permanent Forum on International Pharmaceutical Crime, and the Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers, among others, the operation resulted in the suspension of 550 online advertisements for illicit pharmaceuticals and 2414 websites were taken offline.
A total of 156 people were arrested worldwide and $80-million (R1-billion) of counterfeit drugs, including blood-pressure medication, Viagra, and banned slimming drugs and supplements were seized.
South Africa was involved but this could not be verified by local authorities.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that, in parts of Africa, 30% of pharmaceuticals on the market are counterfeit.
In Johannesburg at the weekend, the sex products purchased included Man King, which appeared to be manufactured in China, Hard in 10 Days and different copies of generic Viagra.
The packages claimed that the drugs were manufactured in India or Africa, and said they contained sildenafil citrate, the active ingredient in Viagra.
Pills were an average of R15 each. Legal Viagra, obtained at a pharmacy, ranges from R119 for a generic 50mg pill to R395 for an original 100mg pill before the pharmacy adds its dispensing fee.
Authorities in South Africa do not routinely test unregistered and illegal medicines in a laboratory, so it is not known what unregistered drugs contain, but experts warn that they can contain harmful substances and might have too much or too little of the active ingredient, or none at all.
On Friday, Gauteng police raided electronics shops in Pretoria that have been selling medicines.
Two months ago, the Hawks bust a pharmacy selling codeine worth thousands of rands that was thought to have been imported illegally.
Despite crackdowns, websites offering fake or illegal drugs have proliferated.
Insiders said websites are often run by criminal syndicates, and are regarded as a safer bet than selling heroin or other banned drugs.
Even if a website appears to have a South African address, the server is likely to be in a foreign country, payment is made to a bank in yet another country, and packing and posting the drugs is done in a third country.
Often small island states are used to warehouse the counterfeit medicines.
The spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Society of SA, Lorraine Osman, told The Times how to find a legitimate website.
“A pharmacy that operates a legal online site must display the pharmacy council registration number, the physical and postal address, telephone numbers to contact the pharmacy, the name of the responsible pharmacist and the hours that a pharmacist is available for consultation.”
Pfizer SA said the problem of counterfeit medicines was global.
“We have seen the spread of the manufacturing of counterfeit medicines from developing countries with poor regulatory systems to countries with strong regulatory systems, such as the US, Canada and the UK.”
Fake Pfizer products have been found in at least 109 countries, and at least 79 products that are copies of Pfizer medicines have been seized.
The company said last year that sufficient active ingredients had been seized for the manufacture of 23.4million Viagra tablets.
Other commonly seized counterfeit drugs, Pfizer said, included Lipitor, for treating high cholesterol, corticosteroids for inflammation, Cytotec, used to treat ulcers and Xanax, an antidepressant.
Cytoctec is sometimes used by backstreet abortionists.
Illegal medicines are sent from countries in the East to Lesotho and then smuggled into South Africa.
They are also posted, often with a forwarding address in another country, such as Zambia or Sudan, but the contents remain in South Africa.
Skin-lightening creams found commonly at taxi ranks come in through legitimate ports of entry in containers but will be marked as “creams”.
It is impossible for customs officials to open every consignment that enters South Africa so the products are not always intercepted.
Skin-lightening products often contain hydroquinone, which can scar the skin and cause it to become thinner.
Medicines Control Council registrar Joey Gouws said there were systems in place to stop fake drugs being sold, including a law that medicines can enter this country only through “specified ports of entry”.
These are Durban harbour and airport, Cape Town harbour and airport, Port Elizabeth harbour and airport and Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport.
“All consignments delivered to any of the other remaining 69 ports of entry are returned to the country of origin,” said Gouws.