The news that drugs giant Novartis is looking at major changes to its supply chain in the UK and may adopt a ‘direct to pharmacy’ approach has caused consternation among the country’s wholesalers.

A spokesperson for Novartis said that the firm “is interested in understanding the potential of moving from its current wholesaling arrangements to a direct to pharmacy model of distribution on a fee for service basis” and will be talking to a number of distributors. The company pointed out that “no decisions have been taken as we are at a very early stage in this process” and that consultations with “a wide range of stakeholders, including community pharmacists” will be held before it makes any concrete move.

Novartis also claimed that “pharmacists add considerable value to health care provision and play an increasingly important role in healthcare services for patients in the UK” and as such, the firm is considering all options available “to work more closely with these critical health care providers, where a common goal to ensure secure and effective delivery and use of medicines is shared.”

The British Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers was non-plussed with Novartis’ plans, and sent a statement to PharmaTimes World News saying it is “another proposed commercially-driven piecemeal change to a robust and flexible model which is delivering for the NHS - have we heard that patients want this? Where is their voice?” The association added that its members are “ready and willing to discuss constructive changes to the distribution model, but in order to avoid unwelcome consequences for pharmacies, hospitals and patients it should be discussed and agreed with all stakeholders and orchestrated by the Department of Health.”

Wholesalers are the ‘invisible backbone of the NHS’

The BAPW went on to say it believes that “the flexible, responsive round-the-clock ordering and delivery service, which UK patients and prescribers rely on, is under serious threat because of the plans of pharmaceutical companies to control the distribution and pricing of their own products. The latter are “imposing new and, in every case, different systems on a tried, tested and agreed model of distribution, which has delivered value-for-money for the taxpayer,” claimed the statement, noting that “wholesalers are the ‘invisible backbone of the NHS’."

BAPW’s executive director, Martin Sawer, said that "we are seeing damaging piecemeal changes to a safe and efficient system, made only because of commercial pressures on individual manufacturing companies. Mixed models are emerging and the administrative burdens, new IT systems and new distribution systems required can only be a cost on the supply chain.”

He added that the association believes the new proposals warrant a total review of the way that drugs get to the patient from pharmaceutical manufacturers and if “regulators and government do not act soon, BAPW believes there could be a huge increased burden on pharmacy, a reduction of competition amongst wholesalers and an increase in cost to the NHS.”

Noting that “these changes are imminent and could be irreversible,” Mr Sawer called on all partners “in this unique supply chain to agree what is the best type of service to ensure that all pharmaceuticals will always get to the patients who need them, anywhere, at any time, historically a core requirement of the NHS.” He added: "If this means more regulation, then so be it. Certainty in business is better than the uncertainty which is apparent in the supply chain today.”

The controversy has been stirred recently by opposition to Pfizer’s decision to plump for an exclusive distribution deal with Alliance Boots which made UniChem the drug giant's sole distributor of drugs in the UK. Wholesalers took Pfizer to the High Court earlier this month to seek an injunction that would stop the plan but the judge rejected the bid.

Pfizer pleased with new distribution arrangements

Pfizer got in touch with PharmaTimes World News and said that it is pleased with the success of its new supply and distribution arrangements, which began on March 5, and two weeks into the new model, “over 97% of pharmacy customers have opened a trading account with Pfizer and over 80% of these customers have placed orders and received deliveries of our prescription medicines.”

A company spokesman said that pharmacy customers are “receiving a very high level of service trading directly with us, with over 99% of deliveries being made on time and in full, ” while David Watson, head of trade at Pfizer added: “We are extremely pleased with performance to date and believe the facts speak for themselves.” By Kevin Grogan