Ottawa has temporarily pulled the licence of one of Canada's largest Internet pharmacies after an inspection turned up "significant concerns" with the company's wholesale operations, but the decision has no bearing on the company's ability to sell hundreds of different drugs directly to patients over the Web.
Health Canada announced Monday that it has suspended indefinitely the establishment licence for Canadadrugs.com, a decision that bars the Winnipeg-based business from shipping medications to other distributors or retail pharmacies.
During a routine inspection, the regulator found injectable drugs that were frozen when they should not have been. The company could not demonstrate it had systems in place to keep medications at the proper temperatures during storage and shipping, Health Canada said by e-mail.
"The lack of such controls for temperature sensitive products may affect the product's safety, efficacy and/or quality," it said.
However, Canadadrugs.com is still free to mail drugs to customers because that part of its business is licensed separately by the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba, a self-regulating professional organization that has not yet decided whether it will launch its own probe of the company.
"We're going to look at the information and get more details from Health Canada and [then] decide what action to take," said Ronald Guse, the college's registrar.
The Health Canada suspension is the latest blow for Canadadrugs.com, a long-time player in Manitoba's online pharmacy sector that was linked in 2012 to the distribution of a counterfeit cancer drug in the United States – a case that ended last summer with one of the company's consultants entering a guilty plea and forfeiting $6-million (U.S.) in cash and property, including a 2011 Aston Martin.
Canadadrugs.com has had problems keeping medications at the correct temperature in the past. Health Canada issued three separate recalls in March of this year for drugs Canadadrugs.com shipped wholesale – not to individuals – because of concerns the products were not kept at the right temperature.
The regulator recalled units of Myochrysine, an injectable treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, shipped to PharmaWest Pharmacy Ltd. in Langley, B.C.; units of Kenalog-40, an injectable steroid, shipped to Canada Diagnostic Centres in Alberta; and doses of Evra, a birth-control patch shipped to a B.C. pharmacy and on to users in the U.S.
Canada's online pharmacy industry rose to international prominence in the early 2000s when a handful of young entrepreneur-pharmacists from Manitoba started selling low-priced Canadian medications on the Web, largely to American customers. As the sector grew, a few of the more successful companies, including Canadadrugs.com, gobbled up competitors.
"There has been a lot of consolidation in the industry," said Tim Smith, general manager of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, which represents the bulk of the country's online pharmacies, including Canadadrugs.com. "The industry is roughly the same size as it was many years ago, but there are fewer players because of consolidation."
Canadadrugs.com lists hundreds of drugs for sale on its website, including 11 it touts as "more popular" prescription drugs such as Crestor, Lipitor and Celebrex.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has kept a close eye on Canada's Internet pharmacies. In September, 2012, the FDA sent a warning letter to Canadadrugs.com asking it to stop selling "unapproved" and "misbranded" drugs to customers in the U.S. under hundreds of Internet domains with names such as cheapmedscan.com, medsforamerica.com and PayLessMeds.com.
Canadadrugs.com did not return messages seeking comment.