AstraZeneca today coughed up $5.5 million (£4.2 million) to settle a highly embarrassing foreign bribery probe, amid claims that the British pharma giant faked conferences and offered gifts to local doctors in Russia and China who bought its drugs.
Britain’s number two drugmaker — one of the biggest international pharma firms in China, with 45,000 staff — falsely recorded improper payments in China and Russia as bona fide business expenses, the US Securities and Exchange Commission said. Some bribery allegations go back as far as 2005, with AstraZeneca said to have made “improper payments of gifts, conference support, travel, cash and other benefits” mainly to Chinese and Russian state medical workers “to reward or influence” their purchases of its drugs.
The SEC claims AstraZeneca set up bank accounts in doctors’ names, hired a “collusive travel vendor” who submitted fake or inflated invoices to generate cash to funnel money, and “totally fabricated” conferences to pay out speaker fees despite there being “no meeting date, venue, [nor] subject”.
Some employees at AstraZeneca in China also paid cash to local officials to reduce or avoid local fines, and even created written charts and schedules about predicted or actual bribe payments, the SEC said.
These were either offered to individual doctors, or to particular hospitals or medical departments, “with the expectation that the [medical staff] would increase purchases of Astra’s products during the corresponding period, or favourably influence the inclusion of [Astra’s] products on formulary or reimbursement drug listings,” according to the SEC.
AstraZeneca, which co-operated with the probe, neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing. It said the US Justice Department has, meanwhile, closed a related foreign bribery investigation. “We are pleased to have resolution of these matters,” the company said.
The US watchdog said AstraZeneca had tackled problems with its compliance and fired some staff involved.