On 18 February 2022, the Belgian Competition Authority (BCA) sanctioned two pharmaceutical wholesalers, imposing a total fine of EUR 29.8 million on Pharma Belgium-Belmedis SA, after a 40% reduction for cooperation. Febelco CV received immunity from fines for having disclosed the existence of the cartel.

Belgium: Pharmaceutical wholesalers sanctioned for collusion

This is the BCA’s first hybrid case, in which both companies were granted a 10% reduction for participation in the settlement procedure, while a third company, CERP SA (a Belgian subsidiary of Astera), decided not to participate in the settlement. The BCA’s procedure against CERP SA still continues. Febelco CV and Pharma Belgium-Belmedis SA participated in a cartel violating both national and EU competition rules. Between April 2003 and November 2016, the pharmaceutical wholesalers were involved in two separate infringements related to (i) transfer orders and (ii) influenza vaccines.

Transfer Orders

Pharmaceutical laboratories (producers) can distribute pharmaceutical products by selling their products in two ways: directly to pharmacists or indirectly via the transfer orders system managed by pharmaceutical wholesalers. In the latter case, a pharmacist places an order at the price proposed by a laboratory, but this system is managed by wholesalers, who prepare and execute the order from their own stocks.

Under these circumstances, the infringers agreed to apply the same commercial conditions to the distribution via the transfer orders system—more specifically, by applying the same pricing to laboratories. The objective of the conduct was to limit direct sales to pharmacists by pharmaceutical laboratories and to fix margins for distribution via the transfer orders system.

Influenza Vaccines

Influenza vaccines are produced each year and must be administered during autumn to ensure effectiveness. As such, purchases of vaccines by pharmacists from wholesalers are based on a system of pre-sales, in which a certain quantity of vaccines needs to be pre-ordered before they are put on the market. The infringers agreed to apply the same commercial conditions for pre-sales.

Certain wholesalers, including Febelco and Pharma Belgium-Belmedis, agreed to not grant discounts to pharmacists and to not accept returns of unsold vaccines ordered during the pre-sale period. They also agreed on the duration of the pre-sales periods.

Potential Damages

Estimates based on a study by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) indicate that approximately 2–3 million doses of flu vaccines are purchased in Belgium each year. As such, the anti-competitive conduct of Pharma Belgium-Belmedis and Febelco may have had a major impact on the pharmaceutical market in Belgium.

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