Pfizer has launched a blistering attack on parallel trading, saying that fake drugs are making it into the legal supply chain as a result of the practice.

The drugs giant was speaking on the occasion of the First European Parliamentary symposium on pharmaceuticals, called Putting an end to drug counterfeiting, which convened policy makers, regulators and specialists on medicines trading in Brussels. Julian Mount, vice president of European Trade at the firm said that “illegal internet trade is one part of the story. However, fake drugs have also made it into the legitimate medicines supply chain in Europe.”

Pfizer says that its particular concern in Europe is the entry of counterfeit medicines into the legitimate supply chain via parallel trade between member states, claiming that “the complex and fragmented nature of medicine distribution in Europe presents multiple opportunities.” It added that over 140 million medicine packs are parallel traded across Europe each year, “all are opened and altered and can travel through as many as 20-30 pairs of hands before finally reaching the patient”.

The New York-based behemoth noted that when counterfeit versions of its blockbuster cholesterol drug Lipitor (atorvastatin) was discovered in the UK supply chain in July 2006 – resulting in a UK-wide recall which involved over 240 pharmacies – over 50% of returned packs were found to be fake. “Middlemen companies who trade as intermediaries in buying and selling life saving medicines were directly involved in this case and were found with counterfeits in their possession,” Pfizer said.

“It is particularly difficult for patients to know if a medicine is counterfeit when it is supplied through trusted sources”, said Mr Mount, and he argued that “ it is time, with the growth in counterfeits entering the European supply chain, for a substantial review of the way medicines are traded, re-packaged and supplied by numerous intermediaries in Europe.

However, Heinz Kobelt, secretary general of the European Association of Euro-Pharmaceutical Companies, which represents parallel traders, dismissed Pfizer’s claim, and said that there was no single reported case of a counterfeit medicine entering the legitimate supply chain in Europe via parallel trade.

The EAEPC’s statement on the European Parliament symposium merely stated that it is in the interests of public health and the continent’s pharmaceutical system “to have an open and honest debate about the very real risk posed by fake medicines” and industry stakeholders, regulators and policy-makers “need to explore ways of reducing the risk of counterfeits reaching the European patient.”