Rogue online pharmacies are selling potentially fatal doses of prescription drugs without checks, probe reveals

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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‘Wild west’ online pharmacies are selling fatal doses of prescription-only addictive medications without adequate safety checks, an investigation has revealed. 

The probe attempted to purchase three restricted drugs – painkillers as well as sleeping and anti-anxiety drugs – from online pharmacies.

It identified 20 that were touting at least one of the medications without appropriate checks, such as approval from a patient’s GP.

The investigation secured 1,600 prescription-only pills, including a ‘potentially fatal dose of the drug used to treat anxiety’. 

Customers could buy the medications within minutes after completing online questionnaires, which one site said was as ‘easy as ordering your groceries online’.

An investigation has found UK online pharmacies are selling restricted drugs, sometimes in fatal doses, without appropriate checks, such as approval from a patient’s GP (stock photo)

The probe, carried out by the BBC, found that three pharmacies sold the anti-anxiety drug, nine sold the painkiller and 14 sold the sleeping medication without appropriate checks. 

Some pharmacies even sent reminder emails about ‘fabulous’ items in their online shopping baskets urging customers ‘to buy before time runs out’.

Such promotional marketing language shouldn’t be used for the sale of prescription only medications, according to regulators.  

The BBC added that each of the 20 online pharmacies that sold to the reporters did issue a disclaimer urging them to notify their GP about their purchase.

The broadcaster chose not to identify either the online pharmacies or the exact drugs they purchased online for public safety reasons. 

But, shockingly, these were from registered online pharmacies, legitimate retailers, as opposed to illicit black-market sellers.

Thorrun Govind, pharmacist and former chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said patients’ lives are being put at risk by current ‘vague’ guidance for online pharmacies.  

‘The current guidance basically tells pharmacies to be robust, but do that in your own way, and we know that under this current system, patients have died,’ she said.

‘This has led to such a variation, with some online pharmacies asking for checks like video consultations, while others seem to let you simply click on the drug you want and go forward to pay.’

The families of Brits who have died after taking medications supplied by online pharmacies issued renewed calls for action in response to the findings.

Christine Taylor’s daughter, Katie Corrigan from St Erth in Cornwall, died after buying painkillers and an anti-anxiety medication online without notifying her GP.

The 38-year-old had originally been prescribed them by her GP for neck-pain.

However, Mr Corrigan’s doctor stopped handing the pills over due to concerns she was taking too much. 

An inquest confirmed none of the online pharmacies that supplied her with the drugs had contacted her GP to check the drug was safe for her.

Christine told the BBC: ‘It’s far too easy – it’s people’s lives, and it’s a disaster waiting to happen.’

Pharmacy regulator, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC), states that online pharmacies must secure ‘all the information they need’ to ensure they are supplying drugs safely and appropriately for a patient.

Any ‘high risk, habit forming’ drugs shouldn’t be sold without proper safeguards, it warns.

Responding to the investigation, GPC chief executive Duncan Rudkin said it raised ‘very serious concerns’.

‘We have asked the BBC to provide further information so we can urgently look into these concerns and take action to protect patients and the public,’ he said.

‘Our guidance for registered pharmacies providing services at a distance, including on the internet states clearly that selling and supplying medicines at a distance brings different risks which need to be appropriately managed to protect patient safety. 

‘Medicines are not ordinary items of commerce and must not be treated as such.’

Mr Rudkin added that the GPC expected pharmacists to carry out appropriate safety checks when suppling medicines to patients particularly those at risk of misuse like opioids and painkillers.

He said the GPC takes regulatory action on any online pharmacy not following appropriate checks. 

‘We have identified cases where some online pharmacies have supplied these high-risk medicines to patients without appropriate steps being taken by the pharmacy owner, prescriber, responsible pharmacist, or other members of the team to check that the medicine being prescribed and dispensed was clinically appropriate for the patient,’ he said. 

‘In response, we have taken enforcement and regulatory action where appropriate against the owners of these registered pharmacies, as well as individual pharmacy professionals involved in both the prescribing and supply of medicines where their conduct may have fallen short of professional standards.’

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