Astellas UK has announced plans to switch the distribution of its transplant medicines Prograf and Advagraf to a single supplier - Alliance Boots’ unit UniChem - as of the end of this month.

Plans for a radical switch to a single medicines distribution channel first came to the fore in September 2006, when Pfizer shocked the industry with its announcement that UniChem would be solely responsible for the supply of its medicines in the UK. The group claims the modification will secure the supply chain for its medicines and reduce the risk of counterfeit medicines, a growing problem in the UK.

Since then, several companies have admitted reassessing their own distribution arrangements (although many will likely be awaiting the outcome of an ongoing ‘market study’ by the Office of Fair Trading into medicines distribution in the UK), and just last month AstraZeneca announced that its modified supply and delivery service, under which it will use just two partners to deliver its medicines directly to customers, will go live from the beginning of February next year.

But Astellas insists that its move is not an indication that it plans to follow in the footsteps of Pfizer by switching all of its medicines to a single distributor, claiming instead that, in this case, the change was a reaction to reports by UK pharmacists of difficulties in obtaining Prograf (tacrolimus) and the newer once-daily version Advagraf from their wholesalers.

“Fourteen thousand patients need Prograf in the UK, and we supply 30% more than patients require. But we’ve been receiving lots of complaints that pharmacists can’t get hold of the drug,” a spokesman for the company told PharmaTimes UK News. “It’s difficult to say what’s happening,” he went to say, but suggested that wholesalers might be selling a large proportion of the supply abroad, which they are entitled to do.

Complex patient management
As Astellas points out, the management of transplant patients is extremely complex and, unlike many other therapies, neither a pharmacist nor a general practitioner can switch patients onto another medicine. It is therefore crucial that patients get a regular supply of their transplant medicines, and the spokesman explained that, by appointing UniChem as “logistics distributor”, the company can make sure that every pharmacy is supplied with its requirements directly.

Commenting on the deal, Mark Stephenson, Supplier Relations Director at UniChem, said that it will “ensure the continuous and timely supply of these critical medicines to patients’, and that the group can offer Astellas an “immediate and reliable solution” to its supply issues.