Controlled drugs were removed from two of four pharmacies in the tourist village of Fort Street (owned by Pharmacy Express), which were searched by police and Department of Health officials. Their lawyer, who called the search illegal, said a closure order had been issued to the pharmacies by the Department of Health.
BELIZE CITY, Thursday. August 11, 2022
The Fort Street Tourism Village was the scene of a stunning Department of Health and Wellness inspection yesterday that looked more like a police arrest. The raid, which took place at four pharmacies in the tourism village, and which ultimately involved police waving money orders, and the prying open of locked drawers for which there were apparently no keys available, was a sensational new twist after a series of intriguing moves. within the Ministry of Health, specifically involving pharmaceutical suppliers in the country. The four pharmacies where the raid took place belong to Pharmacy Express, a company that has been in the limelight in recent weeks after it was announced that the Social Security Board may lend the company $7million. to cover costs related to “refinancing and inventory purchases”. It was an announcement that prompted the Department of Health to issue a press release raising concerns about the company.
These concerns, however, were mere words on paper until yesterday afternoon, August 10, when ministry staff stepped in to carry out an inspection of Pharmacy Save, Pharmacy Express, VillageDiscountPharmacy and RX. The raid was reportedly triggered after a senior drug inspector raised suspicions that pharmacies were supplying controlled drugs to tourists without a prescription or proper license. The inspection began as early as 7:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, according to some reports, and was first carried out by ministry officials, who soon had to call the police for help after some pushback from the owners. of the company and store managers, who asserted that the Ministry of Health did not have the power to carry out such a search.
After officers with warrants entered the facility, a large amount of controlled drugs were confiscated from the premises, some of which were taken from drawers that had been locked. (Calls were reportedly made to the owners in an attempt to get them to come to the premises to open the drawers, but they apparently did not accede to these requests.) But in the middle of the operation, while seizures of drugs had been carried out in only two of the four pharmacies, the raid was abruptly halted – allegedly after a call from a superior within GoB. This stoppage of the raid is said to have taken place around 4 p.m.
And all indications are that there will be further fallout from the raid, which the company’s owners – Angela and Julius Zabaneh – and their attorney, lead attorney Godfrey Smith, represented by Hector Guerra, classify as illegal. . The lawyers said 7News that the police prevented the workers from leaving the shops and the managers from executing a closing order given by the Minister of Health to the enterprise. Smith further stated 7News that the government can “expect prosecution”. As mentioned, the owners reportedly cited the illegality of the raid at an earlier time when Health Ministry staff began their inspection, and noted that no search warrant was provided. As noted, however, the police later arrived with warrants to continue the search and open the drawers that were locked.
Inside those locked drawers, sources said, was a large amount of controlled drugs that under the Misuse of Drugs Act cannot be legally sold without a license. These drugs would have been transported to the Central Health Region for storage and documentation.
In its public investment notice, the Social Security Board said the $7 million loan it could have made to Pharmacy Express Limited is for “refinancing and inventory purchases.” Following public condemnation of the potential loan, the company issued a statement in which it said: ‘Our business caters strictly to overseas customers who arrive on cruise ships. It should be noted that our products have never been and will never be distributed on the local market. »
After public expressions of concern over the loan in late July, the Department of Health and Welfare noted possible licensing issues with the company. Pharmacy Express Limited (PEL), which would be headquartered at Mile 5 on the George Price Highway, would share a building with Medigen International Limited, a company which would be its subsidiary and which, as reported in a recent AMANDALA article, “had obtained a tender for the importation of pharmaceutical and related medical supplies shortly after appearing on the list of approved pharmaceutical establishments” in 2021. It had been reported by 7Newshowever, that the Department of Health “had problems with Medigen…which won several tenders last year, but with whom they had supply issues”.
This most recent controversy has thus brought to the fore a set of other public concerns related to this company, pharmaceutical supply processes and the Ministry of Health.
These concerns stem from moves that took place within the Department of Health as early as August 2021. At that time, the Department was headed by the Hon. Michel Chebat, and it will be several more months before the reshuffle of the ministry which led to the Hon. Kevin Bernard becomes Minister of Health. At this time, the public became aware of the pharmaceutical supply tender award in August, following the publication of a tender (to be submitted in March) in February 2021. The announcement of the awards in August was, as stated by 7News at the time, “unprecedented in terms of delay”.
What is more remarkable, however, is that while well-known large-scale importers of pharmaceutical supplies such as Brodies have received tenders to supply only small quantities of “pharmaceutical and related medical supplies to the Ministry of Health” and Welfare, new products and unknown companies, including Medigen International Limited, appeared for the first time in 2021 on the list of approved pharmaceutical establishments. And this company – Medigen International Limited – seemed to be a preferred supplier, which 7News had said, “zoomed ahead of the long-established importers – to the surprise of many”.
Even more alarming, however, was a report that surfaced around the same time, in August 2021, that the Department of Health no longer required a certificate of good manufacturing practice – an optimal quality standard that pharmaceuticals from any supplier should comply. to encounter. Instead, only a Good Distribution Practices certificate is now required.
“This means that many of the new suppliers selected for the tenders this time around could source low-cost pharmaceuticals from India – and they won’t have that benchmark GMP certification,” 7News had said.
Notably, when asked about yesterday’s raid on pharmacies in the tourist village of Fort Street, Health and Wellness Director Dr Melissa Diaz Musa said 7News in a text message, “I have no comment at this time. (The) team is evaluating pharmacies across the country. »
Late in the evening, a statement from the Social Security Board (SSB) announced that Pharmacy Express Limited had withdrawn its loan application to the statutory body. The SSB statement notes that only the Ministry of Health submitted a written expression of concern over the loan, and it further explained that “MOHW’s objection was based on the fact that currently PEL is not in possession of a pharmaceutical license to operate, and therefore the entity was operating without a license and should not distribute or supply pharmaceuticals to the public…”.
SSB’s statement also indicates that while the company issued no response denying or qualifying MOHW’s claims, it did write a letter on August 9 to SSB’s CEO.
In the letter, SSB said: “PEL has advised that it is withdrawing its loan application, to which SSB has responded by accepting it. Therefore, this completes the loan approval process and the investigation, with regard to the PEL dossier.