The All India Organisation of Chemists & Druggists (AIOCD) has opposed Amazon’s entry into home delivery of medicine or the online pharmacy space. The chemists’ organisation, which claims to represent over 8 lakh members, said that home delivery of medicines is not permitted under current regulations. Further, multiple courts have ruled against the online sale of medicines and their e-pharmacies’ continuing operations amounts of contempt of court, the association said in a letter to the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Amazon India head Amit Agarwal, and copied to PM Narendra Modi. MediaNama has reviewed a copy of the letter.

“…entering this space can bring on legal implications which can bring disrepute to Amazon’s name,” the association said.

Last week, Amazon said that it will launch an online pharmacy in Bengaluru. Amazon Pharmacy will allow customers in the city to order prescription-based and over-the-counter medicines, “basic health devices”, and Ayurveda medication from “certified sellers”. In the US, Amazon bought online pharmacy PillPack for $753 million in June 2019, in a bid to take on existing pharma retailers such as CVS and Walgreens. Amazon is now working on promoting PillPack’s services to Prime subscribers.

Even as the e-pharmacy industry is growing, the question of their legality has been ongoing in courts at least for a few years now, as the government drags its feet over finalising regulations. After a PIL from Delhi-based Dr. Zaheer Ahmed and South Chemists and Distributors Association, the Delhi High Court had in December 2018 banned the sale of medicines online. However, enforcement was weak, leading to contempt of court proceedings in the court.

Draft rules regulating e-pharmacies that proposed to bring them under the fold of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act were first made public in August 2018, but are yet to be finalised.

In March, as the nation went under lockdown, the government had allowed all licensed pharmacies to deliver medicines at doorstep, as long as they receive a prescription for it physically or via email, among other conditions. The central government allowed this by invoking a provision under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act that permits it to regulate medicine sales during epidemics, implying that this is likely a temporary provision. According to the association, this provision is only permitted for neighbourhood pharmacies.

“It may be noted that allowing dispensation of medicines by home delivery will require extensive modification to the Drugs and Cosmetics Act also part from the Rules and the same has been accepted by the Union of India in its affidavit before the High Court of Madras.”

The association claims that under this notification, the prescriptions need to be sent to the email addresses of the individual pharmacies, and these email addresses need to be registered with the state drug authority. “This makes receiving orders on internet or app illegal,” the association said.

Aarogya Setu ancilliary portal suspended following court intervention

At least one chemist association has opposed the fact that a few e-pharmacies were piggy-backing on the popularity of Aarogya Setu, the government’s contact tracing app.

Just a month after Aarogya Setu was launched on April 2, an ancillary platform “aarogyasetumitr.in” went live. The platform aggregated select platforms providing COVID-19 teleconsultations, providing sample collections, and also those providing home delivery of medicines. It featured the largest e-pharmacies: 1mg, NetMeds, PharmEasy, and MedLife. In fact, NetMeds and PharmEasy are now reportedly in talks for acquisitions by Reliance Industries and Flipkart respectively.

Apart from having the same name as the Aarogya Setu, the website was featured on the app, which had millions of downloads already. Within days of its launch, the South Chemists & Distributors Association had approached the Delhi High Court, alleging that the website acted as a marketing tool for only e-pharmacies, and sought immediate closure of the website. Following court orders, the government had to suspend the portal.