Manitoba

Two doctors enter guilty pleas in international counterfeit cancer drug case

Two California oncologists have agreed to plead guilty in a case involving the purchase of more than $1 million US in unapproved and counterfeit cancer drugs from a company owned by a Winnipeg internet pharmacy pioneer.

California doctors admit they bought $1 million US in illegal cancer drugs from Winnipeg-owned company

As part of a plea agreement, two California cancer physicians have admitted they bought unapproved, counterfeit oncology drugs from a company owned by a Winnipeg internet pharmacy pioneer. The Altuzan, also known as Avastin, is an injectable cancer medication. It was found to have no active ingredients. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)

Two California oncologists have agreed to plead guilty in a case involving the purchase of more than $1 million US in unapproved and counterfeit cancer drugs from a company owned by a Winnipeg internet pharmacy pioneer.

Dr. Stanley Rossman and Dr. Mark Goldstein of Hematology Oncology Consultants will be back in a Los Angeles court March 19. 

According to the plea agreement filed in court, they face sentences of one year of probation and $1.2 million US in fines, and forfeitures on behalf of Hematology Oncology. They may also face suspension or revocation of their medical licenses.

"A fine and a year's probation comprise too light a sentence for giving cancer patients sketchy drugs," said Shabbir Safdar, executive director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines, an advocacy group on drug safety and counterfeit medicines.

"These patients don't get a do-over."

Shabbir Safdar, the executive director of the public health group Partnership for Safe Medicines, has repeatedly said the penalties imposed on Kris Thorkelson and others involved in the fake cancer drug investigation are inadequate. (Courtesy: Partnership for Safe Medicines)

In court documents, Rossman and Goldstein admitted to buying discounted oncology drugs from Montana Healthcare Solutions, a business that sourced and sold drugs from foreign markets. 

In October 2010, Montana Healthcare Solutions was purchased by Winnipeg-based Canada Drugs Ltd, which was owned by internet pharmacy pioneer Kris Thorkelson.

"In February 2012, Montana Healthcare Solutions notified defendant that some of the Avastin it had shipped to defendant during the period of Oct. 5, 2011 to Oct. 21, 2011 likely consisted of counterfeit Avastin that did not contain the medicine's active ingredient, bevacizumab," says one of the exhibits attached to the plea agreement.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found the counterfeit drug, also known as Altuzan, had no active ingredients.

Two months later, the FDA sent warning letters to Goldstein and other physicians, demanding they stop using oncology drugs purchased from Montana Healthcare Solutions.

"I'm certain that Goldstein and Rossman's patients are surprised to learn about the charges against them and their intention to plead guilty," said Scott Schwebke, an investigative reporter for the Orange County Register who has been covering the case. 

"It's probably not the way the two doctors want to be remembered after decades of practicing medicine."

In 2018, Winnipeg-based Kris Thorkelson and Canada Drugs pleaded guilty to the illegal sales of misbranded and counterfeit prescription drugs in the United States. (CBC)

The California case is the latest in an investigation of Canada Drugs launched more than a decade ago by the FDA.

Thorkelson and several of his companies, including Montana Healthcare Solutions and Canada Drugs, were charged in 2014 with selling and importing $78 million US worth of unapproved, mislabelled and — in two cases — counterfeit cancer drugs to doctors across the United States. 

In 2015, RCMP officers raided the Winnipeg offices of CanadaDrugs.com and assets in one bank account were seized. 

In 2017, Thorkelson and five other Canadian men were arrested under the Extradition Act.

In 2018, Thorkelson and Canada Drugs pleaded guilty to the illegal sales of misbranded and counterfeit prescription drugs in the United States.

If convicted of the original charges, Thorkelson would have faced up to 45 years in prison, plus fines.

However, his lawyers negotiated a plea deal, which was approved in a U.S. court in 2018.

Thorkelson was sentenced to 60 months of probation, with the first six months under home detention, and paid a $250,000 US fine. He was not extradited to face the charges in the U.S.

His companies were each sentenced to fines of $5 million and forfeited $29 million.

As part of the plea deal, Canada Drugs had to surrender its domain names, hand over all information and permanently stop selling and distributing unapproved or misbranded drugs in the U.S. 

Charges against the other five men were dropped as part of the plea deal.

Thorkelson and several of his companies, including Montana Healthcare Solutions and Canada Drugs, were charged in 2014 with selling and importing $78 million US worth of unapproved, mislabelled and — in two cases — counterfeit cancer drugs to doctors across the United States. (CBC)

The College of Pharmacists of Manitoba cancelled Thorkelson's pharmacy licence in December 2019.

However, according to his official website, he still owns four sites of The Prescription Shop pharmacies in Winnipeg and two real estate companies, My Place Realty and Thorwin Properties.

Lawyers for the two California physicians could not be reached for a comment. Thorkelson's Winnipeg lawyer declined to respond to the California case.

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