US Pharm. 2014;39(9):4.

Despite the efforts of the FDA and a number of federal and state law enforcement and regulatory agencies, many Internet pharmacies continue to sell and ship illegal and potentially dangerous drugs to patients who have obviously ignored the profusion of consumer warnings about buying drugs online. And while U.S. postal authorities have stepped up their efforts to intercept shipments from these sites, packages continue to slip seamlessly through the system. But what happens when a well-known package delivery company that allegedly knew it was handling such products is accused, charged, and indicted?

That’s exactly what befell FedEx this past July. According to an article published by Bloomberg’s Businessweek online, a San Francisco Federal Court charged FedEx with “15 counts of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and misbranded drugs and drug trafficking.” The article points out that the federal indictment against

FedEx comes “more than a year after [UPS] agreed to forfeit $40 million in payments it received from illicit online pharmacies under a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.” It is estimated that the FedEx indictment could cost the company “at least $820 million” and cause an enormous headache for mail-order pharmacies that rely on such shipments to stay in business.

About a month before the FedEx indictment, the FDA announced that it had taken action “against more than 9,600 websites that illegally sell dangerous, unapproved prescription medicines to consumers.” It issued regulatory warnings to many of the offending websites and shut down others, seizing some $41 million worth of illegal medicines sold worldwide. The FDA said many of the sites “appeared to be operating as part of an organized criminal network” that falsely represented themselves as “Canadian pharmacies.” Additionally, many of them used “certain major U.S. pharmacy retailer names to trick American consumers into believing an affiliation existed with these retailers.”

Although the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has launched its accreditation program by creating the VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites) seal, which online pharmacies can post on their site as a sign of their legitimacy and commitment to their patients’ health and safety (not unlike the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval), unauthorized Internet pharmacies continue to proliferate seemingly unabated.

Unless it is proven in a court of law that FedEx had prior knowledge of what products were in the packages it was delivering to Internet pharmacy locations, which were in turn shipped to patients, I believe it will be very difficult to prosecute the shipping company on these charges. FedEx has said it will challenge the accusations in court.

Whatever the outcome, the case against FedEx underscores the fragility of the prescription-drug supply chain. The pharmaceutical manufacturing industry must be more meticulous in its product-tracking methodologies. Without a strict protocol of checks and balances from the time the medication is manufactured and shipped to when it is received by the pharmacy or wholesaler and finally dispensed to the patient, phony prescriptions will continue to infiltrate the drug-delivery systems currently in place. Pharmacists are key components of that distribution network. It is important that they remain alert to possible counterfeit products and report their suspicions immediately to the proper agency. This is one headache that won’t be easily cured, especially with counterfeit medication.

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