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‘Illicit’ online medicine sales a ‘global phenomenon’ says MHRA

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‘Illicit’ online medicine sales a ‘global phenomenon’ says MHRA

The “illicit trade” in commodities such as medicines via “unregulated” websites poses is a “global phenomenon” threatening consumers and patients, the MHRA has warned.

“Many online pharmacies are unregulated, illegal or fraudulent,” the MHRA says in a new report on the impact of artificial intelligence on regulating medical products, adding: “Fake products are a serious threat to public health and safety, as they can contain harmful or ineffective ingredients, or be mislabelled or counterfeit.

“They can cause adverse reactions, treatment failure, antimicrobial resistance and even death.

“The illicit trade that exists online in all commodities is truly global, with illegally trading websites generally based overseas and beyond the reach of UK legislation.”

Noting that there is no “UK regulator for the internet,” the MHRA said tackling the issue requires partnership working, adding that it regularly monitors websites and seeks to “disrupt illegal trade”. 

The agency said it is taking steps such as developing a tool that will allow members of the public to report websites and social media pages they suspect of selling fake or illegal medical products and working with regulators around the world to prototype AI-based methods of tracking down illegal websites.

The report noted that the online sale of medicines and medical devices is a “global phenomenon” as consumers are attracted by the “convenience, anonymity and lower prices” they offer for products including “cheap diet pills and cosmetic products”. 

The GPhC has said on numerous occasions that online pharmacies are vastly overrepresented in its casework, accounting for almost 2,000 fitness to practice concerns raised with the regulator in the five years to January 2024/

The online sale of medicines has generated national headlines in recent weeks, as a separate MHRA report found that some men obtaining the drug finasteride for hair loss experience “persistent” side effects of low mood and sexual dysfunction (the drug is not prescribed for hair loss on the NHS and can only be obtained for this use via private websites), and health secretary Victoria Atkins said the Government will seek to clamp down on “loopholes” allowing overseas websites to prescribe puberty suppressing hormones to children.

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