UK-based drug giant AstraZeneca has announced that its modified supply and delivery service, under which the group will use just two partners to deliver its medicines directly to customers, will go live from the beginning of February next year.

In April, the company became the second drugmaker to reveal plans to switch to an exclusive distribution system following Pfizer’s radical move in September last year. But, after announcing its intention to appoint AAH and Alliance Boots’ unit UniChem as sole suppliers of its medicines, the firm decided back in July to delay the new system’s implementation to ensure that it is “robust and provides the service that our customers need and to give our customers more time to ensure they have accounts with our agency partners.”

Unsurprisingly, Pfizer’s ground-breaking sole-supplier deal with UniChem, which came into force this year, sparked outcry from wholesalers not involved in the move, who claimed that such agreements would stifle competition and could weaken the strength of the pharmaceutical supply chain in the UK by affecting the flow of medicines to patients.

Consequently, a group of eight wholesalers - including AstraZeneca’s partner AAH - went on to unsuccessfully challenge the plans in the High Court, calling for the pact to be suspended until the Office of Fair Trading and the Department of Health give their verdicts on the deal.

Simplification and control

Pfizer has argued right from the start that selling its prescription medicines direct to UK pharmacists and dispensing doctors would enable it secure the supply chain for its medicines and reduce the risk of counterfeit medicines.

And AstraZeneca states that its new system will allow it to “take responsibility for ensuring that a modern and simplified supply and delivery service is in place for all community pharmacies, dispensing doctors and hospitals, so the right medicine, often for serious conditions, is delivered to the right place, for every patient, every single time.”

Furthermore, a spokesperson for the company told PharmaTimes: "The changes are the result of a detailed review of how our medicines reach patients in the UK. This review highlighted that there were opportunities to simplify and modernise the existing delivery service, which has been largely unchanged for many years."

"We believe that simplifying our supply and delivery service will help us get closer to our customers and ultimately provide a better service."

Nevertheless, the Office of Fair Trading is currently carrying out a ‘market study’ into the distribution of medicines in the UK in order to determine “how recent and proposed changes to distribution arrangements may affect competition, the NHS and patients.” The outcome of this is expected by the end of the year and, if it goes against exclusive distribution deals, the likes of Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and others considering following suit, may be forced to rethink their strategies.