Pharmacy Express withdraws SSB loan application

Controlled drugs were removed from two of the four drugstores located at the Fort Street Tourism Village (and owned by Pharmacy Express), which were searched by police and Ministry of Health officials. Their attorney, who called the search illegal, said that a closure order had been issued to the drugstores by the Health Ministry.

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Aug. 11, 2022

Yesterday, the Fort Street Tourism Village was the scene of a stunning Ministry of Health and Wellness inspection that looked and felt more like a police bust. The raid, which took place at four pharmacies in the Tourism Village, and which ultimately involved police officers brandishing warrants, and the prying open of locked drawers for which there seemingly were no available keys, was a sensational new turn following a series of intriguing moves within the Health Ministry—specifically involving pharmaceutical suppliers within the country. The four pharmacies where the search took place are owned by Pharmacy Express—acompanythat hasbeeninthe spotlight for the past few weeks after it was announced that the Social Security Board might be lending the company $7 million to cover costs related to “refinancing and inventory purchases”. It was an announcement that prompted the Ministry of Health to issue a press release in which it cited concerns about the company.

Those concerns, however, had just been words on paper until yesterday afternoon, August 10, when ministry personnel swooped in to do an inspection of Pharmacy Save, Pharmacy Express, VillageDiscountPharmacy,andRX. The raid was reportedly put into motion after a senior drug inspector voiced suspicions that the pharmacies have been providing controlled drugs to tourists without a prescription or the appropriate license. The inspection started as early as 7:00 o’clock on Wednesday morning, some reports say, and was initially carried out by ministry officials, who soon had to call on the police for help after some pushback from the company owners and store managers, who claimed that the Health Ministry had no authority to conduct such a search.

After police officers with warrants entered the establishment, a large amount of controlled drugs was confiscated from the location, some of which were taken out of drawers that had been locked. (Calls had been reportedly been made to the owners in an attempt to get them to go to the premises to open the drawers, but they seemingly did not comply with those requests.) But in the middle of the operation, when drug seizures had been made at only two of the four pharmacies, the raid was abruptly halted—allegedly after a call from some higher-up within GoB. That halt to the raid reportedly took place around 4:00 in the evening.

And all indications are that there will be further fallout as a result of the raid, which the owners of the company—Angela and Julius Zabaneh—and their attorney, Senior Counsel Godfrey Smith, represented by Hector Guerra, are classifying as illegal. The attorneys told 7News that the police were preventing workers from leaving the stores and managers from executing a closure order handed down by the Health Minister to the company. Smith further told 7News that the government can “expect lawsuits”. As mentioned, the owners had reportedly cited the illegality of the raid at an earlier point, when Ministry of Health personnel had started their inspection, and had noted that no search warrant was provided. As reported, however, police later arrived with warrants to continue the search and to open drawers that were locked.

Inside those locked drawers, sources say, was a large quantity of controlled drugs that, under the Misuse of Drugs Act, cannot be legally sold without a permit. Those drugs were reportedly taken to the Central Health Region for storage and documentation.

In its Public Notice of Investment, the Social Security Board had stated that the $7 million loan which it might have granted to Pharmacy Express Limited is for “refinancing and inventory purchases.” Following public condemnation of the possible loan, the company had issued a release in which it stated, “Our business caters strictly to foreign clientele who arrive on cruise ships. Noteworthy is that our products have never and will never be distributed in the local market.”

After public expressions of concern about the loan in late July, the Ministry of Health and Wellness had noted possible licensing issues with the company. Pharmacy Express Limited (PEL), which is reportedly headquartered at Mile 5 on the George Price Highway, reportedly shares a building with Medigen International Limited, a company believed to be its affiliate, and which, as a recent AMANDALA article had reported, “had been awarded tender for the importation of Pharmaceutical and Related Medical Supplies shortly after appearing on the list of licensed pharmaceutical establishments” in 2021. It had been reported by 7Newshowever, that the Ministry of Health “has had issues with Medigen … which won a number of tenders last year—but with whom they have had supply problems.”

This most recent controversy has thus brought to the fore a cluster 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 Health Ministry as far back as August of 2021. At that time, the Ministry was headed by Hon. Michel Chebat, and several months would still pass before the shakeup in the Ministry that led to Hon. Kevin Bernard becoming Minister of Health. At that time, the public became aware of the awarding of pharmaceutical supply tenders in August, following the issuance of a call for tenders (for submission in March) in February 2021. The announcement of the awards in August was, as stated by 7News at the time, “unprecedented in terms of lateness”.

What was more notable, however, is that, while well-known, large-scale importers of pharmaceutical supplies such as Brodies received tenders to provide only small amounts of “pharmaceutical and related medical supplies to the Ministry of Health” and Wellness, new and unknown companies, including Medigen International Limited, were on the List of Licensed Pharmaceutical Establishments for the first time in 2021. And that company— Medigen International Limited—seemed to be a favored supplier, which 7News had said, “zoomed to the front of the line ahead of the long established importers — to the surprise of many”.

Even more alarming, however, was a report that surfaced at about the same time, in August 2021, that the Ministry of Health was no longer requiring a Certificate Of Good Manufacturing Practices—an optimal standard of quality that pharmaceuticals from any supplier would have to measure. Instead, only a certificate of Good Distribution Practices is now required.

“That means that many of the new suppliers selected for tenders this time around may be sourcing their pharmaceuticals on the cheap from India – and they will not have that gold standard GMP certification,” 7News had said.

Notably, when questioned about the raid yesterday at the pharmacies in the Fort Street Tourism Village, Director of Health and Wellness, Dr. Melissa Diaz Musa, told 7News in a text message, “I don’t have any comment at this time. (The) team is conducting evaluation of pharmacies throughout the country.”

Late this evening, a release from the Social Security Board (SSB) announced that Pharmacy Express Limited has withdrawn its application for a loan from the statutory body. The SSB release notes that only the Health Ministry submitted a written expression of concern about the loan, and it further explained that “The MOHW’s objection was on the basis that presently PEL is not in possession of a pharmaceutical license to operate, and therefore the entity was operating without a license and should not be dispensing or supplying pharmaceuticals to the public….”

The statement from SSB also indicates that while the company did not issue any response denying or qualifying the claims made by MOHW, they had written a letter on August 9 to the CEO of SSB.

In that letter, the SSB said, “PEL informed that they were withdrawing their loan application, to which the SSB responded by accepting same. Accordingly, this brings the loan approval process and inquiry, in relation to the PEL matter to an end.”

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