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Medicines and the internet

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THE sale of veterinary medicines via the internet seems to excite less interest in the UK these days than it did a few years ago. To an extent, this may reflect the success of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate's (VMD's) voluntary Accredited Internet Retailer Scheme (AIRS), which was launched in 2012 to help reduce the risk of people buying unauthorised, inappropriate or ineffective veterinary medicines over the internet and to provide reassurance that they were obtaining veterinary medicines from a reputable supplier. News that the VMD is now planning to simplify the scheme (see p 488 of this issue) is therefore worth considering.

Under the scheme, retailers can apply to the VMD for accreditation and, if successful, display a VMD Accredited Retailer logo, with a unique identification number, on their website. The logo indicates that the retailer has applied for and been granted accreditation, and that the VMD has inspected the website and found that it complies with the accreditation scheme's requirements and the Veterinary Medicines Regulations. By clicking on the logo, visitors to the website can confirm the accreditation on the VMD's internet retailer database. On launching the scheme in 2012, the VMD said it would greatly help people who wanted to buy appropriate and effective medicines for their animals from the internet: ‘It gives them confidence that they are dealing with VMD-accredited retailers whose websites and retail operations have been inspected against the UK's Veterinary Medicines Regulations. This will significantly reduce the risk of people buying veterinary medicines that are not authorised for use in the UK or are not suitable for their animals’ (VR, June 2, 2012, vol 170, p 551).

The VMD reports that the scheme has been a great success and very effective in improving overall practice in the supply of veterinary medicines via the internet, with 35 websites now accredited, compared with 10 when it was launched four years ago. ‘The scheme benefits consumers by providing reassurance that AIRS members take their responsibilities as animal health professionals and retailers seriously and are complying with the law.’ Nevertheless, it says it is always looking for ways to improve the services it provides and, in a news story posted on the Government's website on April 28, indicates that it is planning to make some changes. In particular, it reports, ‘A recent internal audit of our procedures for processing AIRS applications found that assessing them took up a considerable amount of VMD staff time due to: some websites being very large with a wide range of products that are time-consuming to navigate; having to check that non-medicinal products are not making medicinal claims; and preparing detailed feedback on each application and reviewing and following-up responses.’ In light of these findings, the voluntary status of the scheme and the fact that accreditation is free, the VMD does not consider that the scheme is sustainable in its current form and, therefore, following an internal review, is planning to simplify the accreditation process.

Anyone wanting to see and comment on the proposals is asked to e-mail the VMD for details and respond by May 20, as it hopes to introduce the changes this summer.

The details make clear that the changes being proposed include modifying the AIRS application process so that the VMD does not assess non-medicinal products for medicinal claims. Instead, the application form will include a declaration from the applicant that their website does not make medicinal claims for non-medicinal products, and an undertaking from the applicant that they will promptly correct all non-compliances brought to their attention by the VMD and that they understand that failure to do so may result in their accreditation being suspended or revoked. In addition, websites will be accredited only for the retail supply of authorised veterinary medicines classified POM-V, POM-VPS and NFA-VPS, and will indicate, if the user hovers over the accredited retailer's logo, the classification of medicines that retailers are accredited to supply. Hovering over the logo will also indicate that non-medicinal products have not been assessed, and customers will be asked to report anything they see wrong with the website to the VMD.

The VMD believes that this will simplify the accreditation process while maintaining appropriate controls.

The changes might be considered a pragmatic response to an increasing workload, but, from a customer point of view, it is difficult to see how they can be regarded as an improvement. Assessing whether inappropriate claims are being made for products is difficult enough for those who are familiar with the complexities of medicines licensing rules, let alone potential purchasers, and, while it might be anticipated that, for example, competitor retailers or pharmaceutical company representatives will be keen to draw attention to any anomalies, it is perhaps optimistic to expect members of the public to be in a position to do so. The VMD will continue to check various other aspects of online retailers' operations, so it would be wrong to suggest that potential purchasers may no longer be reassured by the scheme. However, it does seem possible that they might feel a little less reassured than previously.

The proposals illustrate the challenges of regulation, particularly as far as the internet is concerned, where the resources available for enforcement will always be an issue. The scheme was introduced on a voluntary basis by the VMD in 2012 after the Government made clear that statutory regulation was not an option. It may be proving to be successful but presumably it must be felt that it has not yet reached a stage where retailers can be expected to pay to join. One of the aims of new veterinary medicines legislation that is being developed in Brussels is to facilitate the circulation of medicines across the EU through streamlined procedures and clear rules for internet retailing. It may be that more regulatory options could become available once that legislation is finalised.

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