18% of 3,160 on-line pharmacies investigated in a new study originated in the UK, the second-highest percentage after the USA’s 59%. Moreover, only four of the 3,160 were accredited as Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites, the industry credential that assures consumers of legitimate on-line pharmacy operations.

The majority of prescription drug sites selling the most popular brands operate without proper credentials and lack even the most basic e-commerce security features, risking customers’ health and putting their personal information at risk, says the research, which was carried out by US-based MarkMonitor. It also discovered that some sites which claimed to be Canadian were in fact based in Russia.

The study, which examined internet sales of six widely-used prescription drugs in June, found that 10% of the online pharmacies studied state clearly that no prescription is required to purchase medicines and more than 50% do not secure customer data. One-third of the sites see an average 32,000 visitors daily, which MarkMonitor estimates converts to $4 billion in annual sales for the six brands studied.

For one product, VIPPS-accredited sites charged an average of $10.85, while for non-accredited sites its average price was $2.72. "These deep discounts are significantly higher than the known channel allowance and strongly point to questionable drug products,” says the report.

Risk of supply chain corruption

MarkMonitor also looked at exchange sites, which sell medicines by the pill in bulk quantities, and warns that these risk corrupting the overall drug supply chain by injecting potentially counterfeit products into the market. 31% of such sites originated in China, followed by 26% in the USA and 19% in India, the study found, and an analysis of just 21 exchange sites showed 75 million pills available for sale for the six brands studied. According to conservative estimates, this equals a $150 million wholesale market for those six brands alone, the firm says.

Last year, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain published guidance on Internet pharmacy services for UK pharmacists who provide online services or who plan to do so, and is readying a scheme which will require such pharmacies to display an RPSGB logo on their site. Pharmacies will not be permitted to operate solely on-line.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency says its Enforcement Team continually monitors internet sites, especially those known to be selling prescription-only medicines, and spot checks are made to see if the sites are based in the UK.

Nevertheless, pharmaceutical “brandjackers” are “posing an outright danger to consumers through questionable practices that indicate counterfeiting and gray markets,” said MarkMonitor’s chief executive Irfan Salim, and he urged brand holders to “shoulder the responsibility of protecting their brands online.”