The report from the Imperial College London, published last Friday (February 17), said that antibiotics are illegally available without prescription on 45% of the online pharmacy websites surveyed in its "snapshot" research of the market.
In 80% of cases, patients were allowed to choose what antibiotic they received, the dose and the quantity, researchers found.
All online pharmacies selling medicines to UK consumers must have formal registration with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and display a compulsory EU logo, however 75% of the online pharmacies surveyed lacked evidence of having met these legal requirements.
Operating location “unclear”
The five online pharmacies identified as operating from within Great Britain were registered with both the MHRA and the GPhC and required a prescription before antibiotics were delivered, the report found.
However, it was “unclear” in 50% of cases where the online pharmacy was operating from. Three online pharmacies were based in India and two in Cyprus, according to the report.
The MHRA confirmed to C+D today (February 20) it had received “information” regarding the online pharmacies identified as illegally selling antibiotics, but it could not confirm the names of the pharmacies under investigation.
There is “limited action that can be taken” on the websites hosted outside of the UK, but MHRA will “liaise with the host country” where necessary, it stressed.
“At present there is no way to estimate the acquisition of antibiotics through legal or illegal online pharmacies," the report said.
The researchers called for an "efficient and operational multidisciplinary taskforce" to crackdown on the illegal online selling of prescription only medicines.
Dr Sara Boyd, co-author of the NHS-backed study, said: “These findings are a real concern, and raise several important issues regarding antibiotic resistance and patient safety with online pharmacies.”
Commenting on the study, Royal Pharmaceutical Society president Martin Astbury said: “We cannot support access to antibiotics through a web form until the standards for prescribing by private providers reflect the standard of face-to-face consultations in the NHS.”
"Those involved in supplying medicines online should ensure their processes are as robust as possible," he added.
The MHRA launched a #FakeMeds campaign at the end of last year to highlight the dangers, and to give patients tips on buying medicines online.