GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca have been quick to respond to the latest move by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office to step up its investigation into alleged bribes connected with the oil-for-food programme in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein regime.

The two UK-based drugs giants, plus Eli Lilly, have been contacted by the SFO and asked to hand over confidential documents such as e-mails, faxes and invoices. The investigation is examining allegations that bribes were paid to secure lucrative contracts in breach of Iraq’s 1996 to 2003 deal with the United Nations which meant that the government could sell certain amounts of oil in order to buy foreign food and medicines and not break international sanctions.

The inquiry stems from a UN report that came out in 2005 which named 2,000 companies that may have paid bribes to secure contracts. That probe claimed that investigators had uncovered evidence suggesting that AstraZeneca had paid $162,000 in bribes to get three contracts worth $2.9 million, while GSK was named as having paid $1 million to secure nine contracts valued at $11.9 million.

The two companies, plus Lilly, have strenuously denied the claims. GSK said that during the time of the sanctions against Iraq, the firm, “along with most other pharmaceutical companies,” took part in the UN programme. However, it does not “believe that its employees or its agents in Iraq knowingly engaged in wrongdoing regarding the oil-for-food programme”.

In fact, GSK goes on to say that it went to “considerable lengths to cooperate with UK government authorities responsible for the UK administration of the programme, and to impose anti-corruption measures when dealing with intermediaries in Iraq at a time when the environment was extremely volatile and difficult”. The company added that it is co-operating “fully and freely“ with the enquiries being made by the SFO and the US Securities & Exchange Commission which is conducting its own investigation.

AstraZeneca said that it too is working with the SFO and noted that it sent a consignment of medicines originally requested by the Sadaam regime but most of that was delivered after the USA and UK had taken control of the country.