BEIRUT: The Health Ministry continued its investigation of illegally imported drugs Wednesday, closing down two pharmaceutical warehouses owned by Fouad Wehbe and pulling drugs from pharmacies across Lebanon.
The scandal surrounding the country’s pharmaceutical sector broke last week when a lawmaker told the media that Lebanese consumers should know that medications were being imported using forged documents, including drug safety tests.
Future Movement MP Atef Majdalani told The Daily Star that the forgery likely took place “somewhere between the Health Ministry and the Beirut Arab University.”
Public Prosecutor Hatem Madi, who has launched an investigation into the case, has issued summons for Wehbe and Abdellatif Mahmoud Fneish, the brother of State Minister Mohammad Fneish.
A judicial source said that Madi asked to question both men over the forgery of documents for over 100 generic medicines, but neither has presented himself for investigation.
A statement issued by the Health Ministry said Wednesday it carried out raids and shut down two warehouses owned by Wehbe.
Allegations have been made against three local drug distribution companies but the judicial source underscored that investigations have not concluded.
Media reports have named New All Pharma, Pharma International and City Pharma as the companies that were allegedly participating in the scheme.
In a report published Wednesday, Al-Mustaqbal newspaper said the medications with forged documents posed a serious danger to consumers, especially to those with diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
“We cannot say at this point if the medications are safe or dangerous, laboratories should carry out the necessary exams to make the correct judgment. I don’t know if the Health Ministry has ordered laboratories to do this exam,” said Majdalani.
Majdalani also added that the forged documents include fake drugs tests and forged signatures of Health Ministry officials.
“If the medications were good and safe, why did they need these forged documents?” asked Majdalani.
Skeptical of the Health Ministry’s measures, Majdalani urged officials to take immediate and harsh measures against the perpetrators to protect Lebanese consumers.
During a meeting with Madi at the Justice Palace in Beirut, Majdalani asked the judiciary to take all the necessary measures in the next 72 hours.
“I met today with the State Prosecutor Hatem Madi and we discussed this scandal, this criminal case against the Lebanese people. He assured me that he is personally following up on the matter and has already issued summons for Abdellatif Mahmoud Fneish and Fouad Wehbe and he also told me that there will be other measures against the firms related to these individuals,” he said.
“The forgery did not just happen yesterday or last month; this has been taking place for the past year. This is a very dangerous issue and that is why we need to speed up the investigations,” Majdalani added.
After days of pressure, the firms named in the scandal have also called for their own investigations into the matter.
Denying his own involvement in the forgery, Ali Fneish, one of the representatives of New All Pharma pharmaceutical firm, said that his company had fallen victim to the forgery by unknown individuals.
“We have just filed a lawsuit ... to uncover who was behind this forgery,” Fneish told The Daily Star.
Fneish is the nephew of Mahmoud Fneish and Hezbollah’s Sate Minister Mohammad Fneish.
“Abdellatif Fneish is in Lebanon and he will be available for questions by the judiciary ... He is operations manager of relations between New All Pharma and the Health Ministry,” said Ali Fneish.
According to Fneish, a number of media outlets have launched a campaign to target his firm while investigations are still under way.
“Let us wait for the investigations to conclude. We also want to know what has happened and who is behind the forged documents,” said Fneish, hinting that the answer to that question might be at the Health Ministry.
Fneish also asked why a number of media outlets have focused on one of the firm’s most sold imported product.
“In the past week, there has been a campaign against one of our imported products ... Omizec is one of the best sold products for stomach pain in Lebanon,” he said.
Made by the British company Medreich and manufactured in India, Omizec capsules are used for stomach aches and currently sold at 14,000 L.L. Its primary rival, Gastrimut, is imported by another local firm, Phenicia.
In a visit to a number of pharmacies throughout Beirut, pharmacists told The Daily Star that the sale of Omizec had increased significantly in the past two years and Gastrimut had been struggling to regain its share of the market.
“Two months ago, Gastrimut’s price was lowered from LL23,000 LL14,000, matching the price of Omizec,” said one pharmacist who refused to be identified by the media.