UK drug wholesalers are in the High Court this morning in a bid to get an injunction that will stop Pfizer’s exclusive distribution deal with Alliance Boots from coming into effect on Monday.

Eight wholesalers feel they have been forced to take legal action to block Pfizer’s plan, announced at the end of October last year, to use Alliance Boots’ UniChem division as a sole distributor for its prescription-only medicines to pharmacists and dispensing doctors in the UK. Pfizer says the scheme has been created to solve issues relating to the current supply chain's vulnerability - underscored last year by three batches of counterfeit Lipitor (atorvastatin) that involved the recall of 120,000 packs.

A spokesperson for Pfizer said that it was disappointed that the wholesalers “have collectively decided at this very late stage” to mount a legal challenge to its supply plans. “We will vigorously defend this attempt to disrupt our legitimate arrangements,” the pharmaceuticals giant stated, adding that “we are aware that opponents to our distribution scheme, namely wholesalers who have not been selected to partner with us on this initiative, have orchestrated a campaign which has been designed primarily to protect their own commercial interests.”

The Pfizer spokesperson concluded by saying that the move “may in fact jeopardise the supply of medicines to UK patients as they have actively encouraged pharmacists not to sign up to be able to purchase prescription medicines” from the company.

However opponents of the deal are arguing that they have been forced into taking legal action because of the Office of Fair Trading’s lack of response to complaints about the Pfizer-Alliance Boots pact. Martin Sawer, executive director of the British Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers, told PharmaTimes World News, said he was very disappointed that the body’s members had to bring this legal action because neither the OFT nor the Department of Health have made any rulings on the deal, despite being presented with lots of evidence ever since November which is when complaints were first made to the OFT.

The OFT is now expected to make a comment on Monday, which may seem a little late to some, but Steve Dunn, managing director of wholesaler AAH Pharmaceuticals did say that news that the government watchdog will continue to investigate the proposed distribution deal between Pfizer and Alliance Boots “is welcome news for pharmacists and pharmacy bodies”.

Deal fundamentally flawed

However, he also noted that many people believe that the agreement is “fundamentally flawed and not in the interests of patients or pharmacists, and was being imposed on pharmacists and dispensing doctors,” adding that “doubts about the robustness of the new supply arrangements were increasing.”

Mr Hunt claimed that “there is now a huge burden on Pfizer and Alliance Boots to ensure a quality of service to the UK’s 15,000 pharmacies, dispensing doctors and hospitals previously serviced by a national network of full line wholesalers, an arrangement that has stood the test of time”. Furthermore, “if the supply chain suffers any disruption and if patients cannot get the medicines they need when they need them, as many fear will happen, then it will be clear that the British patient has been left at the mercy of a pointless new supply arrangement.”

He supported the decision by the eight wholesalers, which includes AAH, to refer the matter to the High Court, because “there needs to be a postponement to the scheme whilst the OFT concludes its investigations’’.

Mr Hunt concluded by saying that “all the signs point to cost increases for pharmacy and reduction in service as the likely outcomes of this proposed new deal, but such dramatic changes to distribution need to be agreed with pharmacists and dispensing doctors’’. By Kevin Grogan