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GSK faces fresh allegations of bribery in Syria

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g4925 (Published 31 July 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g4925
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. 1London

GlaxoSmithKline, already under siege in China over charges of corruption that are likely to be aired in a Beijing courtroom on 7 August, faces fresh allegations of similar behaviour made by a whistleblower in Syria.

The new claims, reported by Reuters, bring to six the countries in which GSK has been accused of various malpractices: China, Poland, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and now Syria. The Syrian charges relate to non-prescription products, including the painkiller Panadol, and allege that GSK used bribes, speakers’ fees, trips, and free samples to promote its business, in breach of corruption laws. The offences are alleged to have taken place between 2010 and 2012, when the worsening security situation in Syria forced the company out.

The anonymous whistleblower said that GSK used its own employees and those of its Syrian distributor, the Maatouk Group, to pay incentives to doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and government officials to win tenders and obtain business advantages. The payments allegedly included $1500 (£900; €1100) to two doctors to promote Panadol and bribes to encourage use of GSK cold and flu treatments and Sensodyne toothpaste.

GSK confirmed that it had received an email making the allegations, which was sent to Andrew Whitty, its chief executive, and Judy Lewent, chair of GSK’s audit committee. It said that it would investigate the claims. “We welcome people speaking up if they have concerns about alleged misconduct” the company said.

Although the claims may be modest in scale and relate to over-the-counter rather than prescription drugs in a country where backstairs deals are unlikely to shock the average citizen, GSK has to reckon with legislation in the United Kingdom and United States banning such behaviour wherever it may occur. The US rules provide for whistleblowers to earn 10% of the value of any settlement reached, which has created a climate in which enthusiastic and occasionally opportunistic claims may be made.

The UK Serious Fraud Office and the US Department of Justice have both launched investigations into GSK’s overseas activities. Hitherto the company has suggested that any malpractice occurred under Whitty’s predecessors, but the Syrian claims relate to a more recent period in which he was in charge. He became chief executive in May 2008.

GSK’s worst trouble is in China, where it has been targeted by the government as part of a campaign against corruption. A private investigator hired by GSK, Peter Humphrey, and his US wife, Yu Yingzeng, are due to appear in court on 7 August, charged with illegally buying and selling private information. Humphrey had been tasked by GSK with investigating claims made by a former employee. Concerns have been expressed by UK and US consular staff that the trial will be held behind closed doors with no access to the courtroom for them or for the couple’s teenage son.

Although China has made no direct link between GSK and the charges against Humphrey and his wife, the trial can hardly avoid the issue. While in custody awaiting trial Humphrey has claimed that he felt cheated by GSK because he had been kept in ignorance of the full bribery allegations and was simply asked to investigate the person making them. He said he had seen the details only after GSK completed its own investigations and that he had then realised they “looked real”—an admission that could assist the Chinese authorities in their pursuit of GSK.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g4925

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