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19 wholesalers under MHRA 'suspicion', claims BBC

HDA: Our members only supply medicines to those who have a legal right to dispense to patients
HDA: Our members only supply medicines to those who have a legal right to dispense to patients

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?

Ilove Pharmacy, Non Pharmacist Branch Manager

I bet they're all quaking in their boots...


Mohammed Patel, Community pharmacist

Why are they doing this? Because they have had all their income removed systematically over years and years by various means.

BBC coverage can only be good for the industry. But the only people earning a good living are the CEOs of the multiples, and the MPs. I was going to say Lloyds shareholders, but even their ruthless hand cannot stop them from being forced to sell off almost 200 pharmacies.

Try getting a mortgage in London on a pharmacist's salary! Complete joke! Are you going to work yourself into the ground for a bedsit in zone 1?

But if you're knocking out bottles of Oramorph at 200 quid a pop, that house that could actually accommodate you and your family suddenly becomes affordable! Crime doesn't pay but neither does a career in pharmacy.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Brian Austen, Senior Management

The MHRA don't do themselves any favours because in the recent past they have chosen not to take action against dispensing doctors that were supplying stock to their GP owned pharmacy without a wholesale license. They subsequently did issue a license, but then that was suspended or surrendered when breaches were found during checks. NHS England were also made aware of this but they still authorised a change of ownership where the pharmacy company went into voluntary liquidation before being transferred to the doctors new company under a change of ownership. The doctors were considered to have 'passed' fitness to practice; be directors I suspect because MHRA took no action. It was about this time that I lost faith in MHRA, NHS England and GPhC (also informed).

Marc Borson, Community pharmacist

A list to of the WDA holders involved must be published we need to know if we are dealing them.

Brian Austen, Senior Management

One of the basic requirements of holding a wholesale license is that you check the legitimacy of all those you receive stock from and all those that you supply stock to. It is easily done checking their registration and licensing documentation against the MHRA register.

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