After waltzing around courtrooms for most of 2018, it’s finally business as usual for epharmacies in the New Year. In one of its first hearings in 2019, the Madras High Court overturned a ban on the sale of medicines, online.
“We explained to the court — as a group — the processes we follow, and how we are taking care of various sections of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940,” said NetMeds founder and chief executive officer, Pradeep Dadha, speaking to CNBC-TV18, “The court understood our stance, and that was the main reason they granted a stay on the order that was passed restricting online sale of drugs till the notification came into effect.”
In November, a two-member bench of the court had imposed a ban on online sales of medicines, on the basis of a petition filed by the Tamil Nadu Chemists & Druggists Association. The court later clarified that the ban only applied to “unlicensed” online pharmacies.
While both, licensed and unlicensed pharmacies can go about doing business now, the court ruled that the onus continues to be on the central government to ratify its draft rules for the epharma sector by January 31. And although, epharmacies are hailing the ruling as a vindication of the legality of their business, questions surrounding licensing and registration continue to remain.
At present, epharma players like 1MG and PharmEasy do not possess FDA-approved licenses to sell medicines, online. This fact put these companies on a sticky wicket last year, when the court ruled that they could not sell medicines without the valid licenses. Their defence was they didn’t need one in the first place because they were mere “aggregators” and not pharmacies per-se.
Won’t Apply For Licenses: EPharmacies
While speculation was rife that online pharmacies would apply for licenses to avoid further litigation, the companies themselves are holding fast to their stance that they never needed these licenses in the first place.
“Our model is fully compliant under the current law and we are not considering changes to it,” said Prashant Tandon, founder, 1MG, in a statement to CNBC-TV18. He added, “Our platform receives customer queries along with prescriptions, and forwards it to a licensed offline retailer who dispenses drugs as per the directives of the Drugs & Cosmetics Act.”
PharmEasy mirrors 1MG’s stance. In a statement to CNBC-TV18, Dharmil Sheth, Founder, PharmEasy, said, “We are an electronic platform that connects sellers with patients, and we only work with pharmacies with a valid license for selling medicines along with a licensed pharmacist supervising every sale.”
Government Notification Could End Ambiguity
Even as they let the status quo remain, these companies are now opting to wait for central government to ratify its draft rules for sale of medicines online, by January 31. Experts say the act of notifying these rules from the government’s end would translate to lesser ambiguity over the need for licenses in the first place.
“Various standards of business that need to be maintained — all of them are contained in the regulation,” said senior advocate PS Raman, “Once they register themselves, the question of whether they need a license under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act may actually cease to exist.”
While the court’s ruling is no doubt, a clear positive for e-pharmacies, the fact is the sector will breathe easy only central government ratifies its rules concerning sale of medicines online, by the end of the month. Once that happens, litigation surrounding the legality of the online pharmacy business, could draw to a close.