Canada’s drug shortage from U.S. Internet sales?

A Canadian pharmacists’ group is blaming the burgeoning trade in prescription-drug sales to U.S. patients for reported instances of local drug shortages, The Wall Street Journal reported on Nov. 3.

Barry Power, a director of the Canadian Pharmacists Association, told the newspaper his organization has been hearing from members across the country that supply problems are cropping up more often and lasting longer than before the Internet pharmacies set up shop.

While Canada’s federal health ministry says it doesn’t have any evidence that the on-line pharmacies are causing shortages, a senior official acknowledged last month that swelling cross-border sales raise that risk.

In a letter to provincial regulators, pharmacy associations and medical groups, Health Canada Assistant Deputy Minister Diane Gorman said the federal agency "regards this as a very serious matter."

The letter requested any "information regarding early indications of drug supply problems" or "trends regarding drug supply, safety concerns, or impacts on human resources, which may pose risks to Canadians’ health."

The Canadian International Pharmacy Association, which represents Canadian pharmacies offering U.S. mail-order service over the Internet, estimates that total sales by its members will reach roughly $800 million this year, with more than $1 billion in sales projected for 2004. The association says Canada currently has between 120 and 140 Internet pharmacies, compared with 10 in 1999.

Several large pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline PLC, said they would limit sales of patent-protected prescription drugs to Canada over concerns that Canadian Internet pharmacies are re-exporting the drugs to the United States.

One of the latest companies to do so is Eli Lilly & Co., which started limiting drug sales to Canadian pharmacies in late October.