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CVS takes step to keep fake drugs off shelves

Firm tightens criteria for picking suppliers

CVS Corp. said yesterday it would stop buying drugs from wholesalers that use middlemen in an effort to crack down on counterfeits infecting the drug supply.

The disclosure comes several weeks after the country's second-largest drug distributor said it would curb the trading of pharmaceuticals with secondary wholesalers, and three years after a 16-year-old liver transplant patient was injected with a fake version of the Epogen drug bought from CVS.

''CVS will only purchase pharmaceuticals directly from the manufacturer, or from wholesalers who certify that they are not trading in the secondary drug market," Chris Bodine, CVS's executive vice president of merchandising and marketing, said in a statement. ''If we are unable to receive those assurances, those wholesalers' contracts will not be renewed."

Wholesalers that buy drugs from other vendors and not directly from manufacturers have come under increased scrutiny. Regulators suspect that these middlemen -- which a healthcare expert estimates handle about 10 percent of the country's drug supply -- are partly responsible for counterfeits in the market, including those of Viagra and Lipitor.

Some states have proposed bills to protect the nation's drug supply chain and last month, the three largest US drug distributors said they received subpoenas from the New York state attorney general as part of a probe into purchases between wholesalers.

''This is tremendous news. The wholesalers for years have been playing Russian roulette with the health, safety, and welfare of the public by buying mystery medicine and peddling it as bonafide," said Eric Turkewitz, an attorney for the teenager, Timothy Fagan, who filed a lawsuit two years ago against CVS and drug distributor AmerisourceBergen Corp. ''They did not do background checks on who had owned the drugs and conditions they had been stored previously. "

CVS, the nation's largest retail pharmacy chain by number of stores, would not provide specifics on the certification process it would require of its drug distributors, said Todd Andrews, a spokesman for the Woonsocket, R.I., company.

''We deeply regret the event," Andrews said of the Fagan incident. ''Counterfeit medications are virtually impossible to detect. In this particular instance, as soon as we were notified by the manufacturer, we immediately notified the patient."

AmerisourceBergen said it purchases less than 0.5 percent of its drugs from secondary wholesalers and since the 2002 incident, the company has enhanced tracking and security and has not had another counterfeit episode, said Mike Kilpatric, a spokesman.

''At the present time, we're comfortable with where we are but that doesn't mean we won't change in the future," Kilpatric said. Other retail pharmacies, including Wal-Mart and Walgreens, said they don't do business with wholesalers that trade in the secondary drug market.

But Bryan Liang, executive director of the San Diego Center for Patient Safety at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine, said CVS is the first company to openly demand that its distributors stay out of these markets and clearly trace the history of the drugs.

''A lot of hands can touch that same drug in the secondary market," Liang said. ''But CVS's announcement is a good thing, and hopefully this is starting a movement in the seller market that they don't want to play in this game of the middlemen anymore."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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