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19 wholesalers under MHRA 'suspicion', claims BBC

Nineteen wholesalers are “under suspicion” for the diversion of prescription-only medicines (POMs) onto the criminal market, the BBC has claimed.

BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme – which aired on Tuesday (January 30) – aimed to investigate the “extensive network of criminality involving businesses such as wholesale dealers and registered pharmacies” diverting POMs to be sold illegally online, which the UK’s medicines watchdog revealed earlier in the day.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said that its latest crackdown – which leads on from its 2016 investigation into the “significant diversion of benzodiazepines and other hypnotics/anxiolytics” onto the black market – involves “businesses such as wholesale dealers and a small number of registered pharmacies” across the UK.

Following the MHRA’s confirmation of “more than 40 arrests” and the suspension of five pharmacists, the BBC – which claimed to have seen a full copy of the watchdog’s intelligence report – said 19 wholesalers are still “under suspicion as investigations into the criminal network continue”.

One of the “weak link[s] in the chain is among wholesalers who trade in bulk”, the BBC claimed. “Offenders have been buying from them, sometimes using fake licensing documentation.”

The BBC also claimed that 12 wholesale dealer licences have been handed in or terminated so far, as part of the MHRA’s investigation.

The MHRA would not confirm the figures to C+D and said it could not comment while investigations are ongoing.

HDA responds

Martin Sawer, chief executive of the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA) – which represents “less than 5%” of the “2,500 wholesale dealer” licences in the UK – told C+D that “many of these [licences] are held by [organisations] whose main business is not wholesaling or distribution”.

All licence holders “are mandated to observe EU good distribution practice guidelines”, he stressed.

“HDA members have rigorous checks in place to ensure we only supply medicines to those who have a legal right to dispense to patients and who are subject to strict professional regulation.”

They also “conduct their own internal audits and inspections to ensure full compliance with the due diligence process”, Mr Sawer said.

“Huge spike in demand”

John Preston, head of offsite dispensing at Phoenix Healthcare Distribution, told the BBC Radio4 programme the wholesaler had reported a customer to the MHRA after seeing “a huge spike in demand” for an unnamed product.

Phoenix’s close monitoring of its distribution activities “quite regularly throw[s] up cause for concern”, Mr Preston said on the programme.

The BBC said the “bigger players in the legitimate wholesale market” are vigilant to suspicious activity.

Catch up with the File on 4 episode, ‘A Deadly Prescription’, on BBCiPlayer here

Are you aware of patients buying POMs illegally?

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