Pfizer fights Viagra counterfeiters with prescription website
■ It's the second pharmaceutical giant to launch a branded site to sell medications.
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Pfizer is planning to alert doctors that there is a new way for patients to fill their Viagra prescriptions online, without the risk of getting counterfeit medicine from thousands of online sites hawking the erectile dysfunction pill.
The company announced May 6 that, in cooperation with retail pharmacy chain CVS, it has launched a website dedicated to accepting, filling and shipping Viagra (sildenafil citrate), the top-selling medication in its class. Pfizer said Viagra rang up $2 billion in sales in 2012, which represents 49% of the erectile-dysfunction pill market, according to IMS Health, a market analyst that tracks drug sales.
But there are more buyers of Viagra, or what patients believe to be the well-known “little blue pill,” than those numbers indicate. Pfizer said it started the website to fill Viagra prescriptions because previous educational efforts aimed at doctors and patients weren't enough to counteract what it believes to be rampant fraud in online sales of the pill.
Victor Clavelli, a Pfizer marketing executive whose portfolio includes Viagra and who leads the company's marketing innovation efforts, said there are 24 million online searches for the drug every year, outpacing the 8 million annual prescriptions filled. He said based on an analysis of 22 sites claiming to sell Viagra, 80% sold a counterfeit version.
Clavelli said Pfizer wants to give patients a website where they could be assured their prescriptions would get them the true medication. “Unless we find a way to meet that need” for online Viagra prescriptions, patients will continue to fall victim to other, illicit sites, he said, even though major pharmacy chains already allow many medications to be ordered through their websites.
Pfizer's move came only a few weeks after the National Assn. of Boards of Pharmacy issued a report reviewing 10,421 Internet drug outlets selling prescription medications. The NABP said of those sites, 10,082 — 97% — were found to be “operating out of compliance with state and federal laws and/or NABP patient safety and pharmacy practice standards.” The NABP created a site, AwareRx.org, that lists what it considers “not recommended” sites.
The Pfizer site provides, with one click, access to a CVS Web page that allows patients to enter physician, prescription and insurance information to fill a Viagra order for home delivery. A doctor also could send a prescription straight to the site through an electronic prescribing system. Pfizer is extending to its Viagra website discount plans previously made available through physicians or direct marketing to patients.
AstraZeneca also selling online
Pfizer is not the first pharmaceutical company to offer a branded site to sell its medications. AstraZeneca has done this with Arimidex (anastrozole). Arimidex, a breast cancer drug, was the initial medication in the launch of AstraZenecaDIRECT in November 2011. Unlike Pfizer, fraudulent medications were not a factor in AstraZeneca's launching its site, said spokeswoman Stephanie Andrzejewski. Instead, she said, the motivation was patient demand for a way to get Arimidex, which went off patent in the United States in 2010, at a lower cost. (Viagra's U.S. patent expires in 2019.) Arimidex generally is less expensive if ordered through AstraZenecaDIRECT, compared with most pharmacies. She said about 2,000 patients have signed up for the site.
AstraZeneca includes physicians in its marketing of the site, in part to understand “the role AstraZenecaDIRECT may play in patient adherence,” Andrzejewski said. But Pfizer and AstraZeneca said they do not collect, and use for marketing, information on doctors whose prescriptions end up on their company-branded sites.
At this point, neither company plans to expand its online offerings. But Roger Bate, PhD, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies pharmaceutical fraud, said he wouldn't be surprised if more drugs were made available through company-branded sites. He said two classes of drugs that patients might feel carry a social stigma, and are ripe for fraud, would be most likely to sell in this way: sexual health and diet pills. “As a marketing exercise, it's not bad to remind people” they can get legitimate prescriptions over the Internet, he said.
However, Bate doesn't expect Pfizer to sell a lot of Viagra through it site. The main issue, he said, is that patients can find legitimate Canadian pharmacies online that will fill their Viagra prescriptions for half the cost of the estimated $22 per pill charged in the United States.