by Matthew Chapman
BBC Radio Five Live Report
The NHS has been buying anti-Aids drugs illegally diverted from desperately poor countries around the world, a BBC investigation has revealed.
Several developing countries are deprived of life saving drugs
Britain has become a focus for a trade which has deprived several African and Eastern European countries of shipments of life-saving medicines.
In one case a stash of anti-Aids drugs was discovered in a warehouse in Essex alongside half a tonne of cannabis.
The Department of Health said guidelines had been drawn up to ensure that diverted medicines did not end up in the NHS.
Experts say the demand for the drugs, which can extend the lives of HIV-positive patients by years, means the trade is as lucrative as cocaine trafficking.
The major pharmaceutical companies have long been under pressure to provide expensive anti-retroviral medicines for free, or at discounted prices, to poorer countries in Africa and Eastern Europe.
The drugs are not allowed to be brought back into the EU, where the manufacturers charge much higher prices to richer health services.
But the difference in price means that traders can make massive profits by intercepting shipments, illegally re-importing the drugs back into Europe and selling them at Western prices.
One expert has calculated that the main chemical in anti-retrovirals is as valuable as cocaine.
"These drugs are very compact and very valuable," said Professor Kevin Outterson, of West Virginia University.
One Kent-based company that has held major NHS contracts is currently being investigated by government regulator the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) over allegations that it obtained supplies of anti-retrovirals that had originally been sent to Kenya, but were diverted back to the UK.
The Five Live Report has learned of cases stretching back over a five year period.
In January this year former bookmaker Adam Knight, from Nazeing in Essex, was fined £50,000 after admitting dealing in anti-retrovirals.
He made a £150,000 profit on drugs meant for Africa which were eventually bought by the NHS.
Companies have been urged to provide anti-retroviral drugs for free
Investigators also found half a tonne of cannabis stored with the anti-retrovirals but no charges were brought.
Warwick-based pharmaceutical company Dowelhurst has supplied the NHS with anti-retrovirals meant for Africa.
GlaxoSmithKline said it earmarked the drugs for countries such as Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad but quantities came back into the UK via Switzerland.
The company took legal action, claiming Dowelhurst must have known the drugs were meant for charities in Africa because of the cheap price they paid.
Dowelhurst would not comment but during the court case it conceded the Swiss trader from whom it bought the drugs, Claude Horn, was not licensed to sell them in the EU. The firm said it did not realise that at the time.
It also strenuously denied it ever suspected the drugs were meant to be sent to Africa, saying it paid normal market prices for them.
Sources say the case is within days of being settled out of court.
The BBC traced some of these drugs to a London hospital which did not wish to be named.
Eastern Europe is another area of concern.
A company called UK Aid was established to supply much needed drugs such as anti-retrovirals to Eastern Europe.
Set up by pharmaceutical consultant Martin Mitchell and company director Leslie Silverman the firm said on its website that it could supply HIV products to "relief aid organisations, NGOs and charities".
The drugs were bought directly from manufacturer Glaxo but around 2002 Glaxo claimed the company had failed to pay for £6m worth of medicines it had supplied. The two directors denied they owed any money.
One of the countries UK Aid intended to supply was Ukraine, which has the highest and fastest growing rates of HIV infection in Eastern Europe.
The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres - which manages several projects there - said that despite intensive investigations it has no record of UK Aid operating in the country.
The BBC has seen evidence that Essex-based UK Aid sold shipments of anti-retrovirals to an Italian pharmaceuticals company, despite not having a licence to sell prescription drugs within the EU.
Some consignments eventually ended up being bought by the NHS.
The BBC found drugs meant for Africa ended up in the NHS
When the Five Live Report put these allegations to Mr Mitchell and Mr Silverman they said simply they were "rubbish" but refused to comment in detail.
They laughed off suggestions that they had diverted anti-retrovirals meant for Eastern Europe.
Buyers working for the NHS purchase medicines either on behalf of individual hospitals or whole trusts.
One senior buyer said the NHS had to trust its suppliers to source their anti-retrovirals legally.
Speaking anonymously he said: "I remember being offered batches of anti-retrovirals and being a bit suspicious of where they had come from.
"There were enough concerns on my part to have them tested but when we found nothing wrong with the drugs we bought them. You don't have the time to find out where every batch has come from."
Manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline says it hopes new security measures, which include changing the colour of pills it gives to charities, will help combat diversion.
The Five Live Report: The Trade in Aids Drugs, BBC Radio Five Live, Sunday 24 April at 1930 BST.