Some 23 pharmacists are facing fitness to practise investigations over the illegal diversion of prescription-only medicines (POMs) from the NHS medicines supply chain to the online black market.
Six of these pharmacists have been suspended from practice under interim orders, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), the independent regulator for pharmacy in Great Britain, confirmed on 4 May 2018.
The figures emerged as the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the medicines safety watchdog, revealed the latest details of its ongoing UK-wide investigation into the illegal racket, which it estimates has involved up to £200m of POMs between 2013 and 2016.
The MHRA confirmed on 4 May 2018 that, so far, 44 individuals have been arrested as part of its ongoing inquiries. Eight of these are known to be pharmacists and one has been charged, the watchdog revealed.
The investigation, originally launched by the MHRA in 2016, is focusing on benzodiazepines and anxiolytics, including diazepam and zopiclone and the painkiller tramadol. Both registered pharmacies and wholesalers are thought to play a part in the criminal activity. The MHRA believes approximately 50 pharmacies may be involved — some unwittingly.
Alastair Jeffrey, the MHRA’s head of enforcement, said: “It is a serious criminal offence to sell medicines outside of the regulated supply chain and we are working relentlessly with regulatory and law enforcement colleagues to identify and prosecute all those involved in this activity.
“We have opened over 30 individual investigations and we will continue to concentrate our efforts on identifying the criminals involved and ensure they are prosecuted through the courts.”
The MHRA said its latest analysis of bulk orders of diverted medicines reveal a “significant” drop in the large scale orders of POMs between 2016 and 2017, suggesting its crackdown is already having an impact.
In a statement, it said: “Our investigations look at the supply chain … and have identified a number of websites that are outlets for diverted products. We have identified three websites where there has been approximately £55m transacted for medicinal products.”
The GPhC said that any further action against the 23 registrants who are subject to the fitness to practise investigation will depend on the outcome of the MHRA’s inquiry.
Duncan Rudkin, the chief executive and registrar of the GPhC, said in a statement: “We are working closely with the MHRA on a major ongoing investigation into the diversion of prescription medicines away from the normal supply chain. We have already taken action to suspend six pharmacists under interim orders and are actively reviewing at each stage of the investigations whether we need to take further action to protect the public.”