When the news first broke of a burglary at an Eli Lilly warehouse in Connecticut in mid-March, I’ll confess that at first I wasn’t very shocked at the size of the robbery—an estimated $75 million. True, that’s the biggest recent robbery (and, ironically, as we reported on p. 1 in our Nov/Dec issue, Lilly has the misfortune of suffering the next-highest theft, too, of a $37-million truckload last May that was quickly recovered). Biopharma is a big business, with roughly $300 billion in annual sales; median sales from wholesaler distribution centers were $1.7 billion in 2008, according to the latest HDMA Factbook. But then it hit me—if this were a bank robbery, it’d be among a handful of the world’s largest in history.
The burglary has several notable features. According to police reports and sources close to the investigation, this was a very professional job. An assumed crew chose a Saturday night (the DC is closed over the weekend), cut a hole in the roof, rappelled inside, disarmed the security system, and then loaded some 70 pallets of Lilly products—mostly Prozac, Cymbalta and Strattera, all psychoactive drugs but not widely known for drug abuse—into a vehicle or vehicles and made their getaway. This was not an opportunistic grab of an unattended trailer on a highway rest stop, or a stickup of a pharmacy delivery, two of the most common types of drug theft.
Our Nov/Dec report noted that there are troubling trends indicating that organized crime, or at least organized criminals, are targeting pharmaceutical shipments. Trucks that leave known pharma warehouses are followed, sometimes for hundreds of miles. Stolen trailers or cases of products often quickly melt away. A Novo Nordisk robbery about a year ago resulted in multiple FDA warnings when stolen insulin showed up in a Houston medical center. The logic for targeting biopharmaceuticals is painfully simple—they are compact, high-value products. There is enough of an alternative distribution pathway, either through Internet sales, or smuggling to another country, or unscrupulous pharmacists, to fence the goods. And when it comes to drugs of choice for abuse—mostly painkillers—there is a wide, national market for contraband. Five million Americans used opioid drugs “recreationally” in 2006, according to government statistics. Tragically, over 14,000 died as a result of overdosing.
This is the takeaway for me: the pharmaceutical industry supply chain is under near-constant duress. Critics of efforts like item-level serialization, track-and-trace systems (see p. 11) or pedigree programs assume that existing safeguards are sturdy enough; you’ll never get perfect security, they say, and the great majority of drugs that are dispensed occur safely and with the appropriate precautions. But this assumes that the bad guys will only work by customary methods such as hijacking a truck or feeding some quantity of counterfeit products into offshore Internet pharmacies that people should know better than to use.
I hope that the perpetrators of the Connecticut burglary are caught and swiftly brought to justice. I fear that the size of the heist will attract a new level of criminal interest in drug distribution. A more secure supply chain would give all of us better peace of mind.