Sanofi-Aventis is set to become the third drug major to switch to an exclusive distribution system for its medicines in the UK, with the announcement that, from November 1, its products will be distributed by AAH, Phoenix and UniChem only.

The change is being made to improve supply-chain efficiency and integrity in the delivery of its medicines to patients, said the French-based drugmaker. The three firms will offer 100% national coverage across the UK, including Northern Ireland, there will be no change to their wholesaler status and they will continue to control both discounts and delivery frequency, it added.

Announcement of this latest limited distribution deal was embargoed until this morning (July 30), so representatives of the wholesaling industry have yet to comment. However, the British Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers (BAPW) has been fiercely critical of the first two such arrangements, announced by Pfizer last October and AstraZeneca in April this year, warning that these “new and varied distribution arrangements” could damage the robustness of the pharmaceutical supply chain and the ability of patients to receive medicines quickly and easily, with the potential for hidden costs to the National Health Service (NHS).

Pfizer announced its ground-breaking sole-supplier deal with Alliance Boots unit UniChem last September, stating 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. In March this year, the deal was unsuccessfully challenged in the High Court by a group of eight wholesalers, including AAH, which then in April was named by AstraZeneca as one of just two wholesalers alongside UniChem, which would distribute its products in the UK from later this year. Commented AAH group managing director Steve Dunn: “Pharmacists will be relieved that this is not another single-channel scheme like that implemented by Pfizer which relies upon one agent to meet the complex demands of every pharmacy, hospital and dispensing doctor everywhere in the UK.”

However, AstraZeneca has now said that implementation of the new distribution arrangements will be delayed until early next year.

Scepticism over counterfeit claims

Many observers are highly sceptical about the companies’ claims that

they are taking these steps to minimise the risk of counterfeit medicines entering the supply chain, and believe that their real motive is to destroy the parallel imports market. And some experts believe that such distribution deals will actually worsen the risk of patients receiving counterfeit medicines; an across-the-board take-up of such programmes could lead to pharmacists looking to buy their products elsewhere, including from “less reputable sources,” warned Dispensing Doctors Federation chief executive David Baker, speaking at the BAPW annual conference earlier this year.

However, according to Sanofi-Aventis UK supply chain director, Mike

Isles, the new arrangements will enable the company “to maintain the

service levels that our customers experience today, whilst improving

supply chain efficiency in the delivery of our medicines to patients.”

AAH, Phoenix and UniChem already distribute nearly 90% of all medicines in the UK, and pharmacists should already have existing arrangements with one or more of these wholesalers, ensuring continuity of supply, the company adds. Meantime, as other drugmakers, including Eli Lilly and Novartis, are reported to be readying their own limited distribution deals, a

market study into the new arrangements by government watchdog the

Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is due to report its findings by the end

of the year.