Introduction: The rapid globalisation of the pharmaceutical production and distribution has not been supported by harmonisation of regulatory systems worldwide. Thus, the supply systems in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) remain exposed to the risk of poor-quality medicines. To contribute to estimating this risk in the private sector in LMICs, we assessed the quality assurance system of a convenient sample of local private pharmaceutical distributors. Methods: This descriptive study uses secondary data derived from the audits conducted by the QUAMED group at 60 local private pharmaceutical distributors in 13 LMICs. We assessed the distributors' compliance with good distribution practices (GDP), general quality requirements (GQR) and cold chain management (CCM), based on an evaluation tool inspired by the WHO guidelines 'Model Quality Assurance System (MQAS) for procurement agencies'. Descriptive statistics describe the compliance for the whole sample, for distributors in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) versus those in non-SSA, and for those in low-income countries (LICs) versus middle-income countries (MICs). Results: Local private pharmaceutical distributors in our sample were non-compliant, very low-compliant or low-compliant for GQR (70%), GDP (60%) and CCM (41%). Only 7/60 showed good to full compliance for at least two criteria. Observed compliance varies by geographical region and by income group: maximum values are higher in non-SSA versus SSA and in MICs versus LICs, while minimum values are the same across different groups. Conclusion: The poor compliance with WHO quality standards observed in our sample indicates a concrete risk that patients in LMICs are exposed to poor-quality or degraded medicines. Significant investments are needed to strengthen the regulatory supervision, including on private pharmaceutical distributors. An adapted standardised evaluation tool inspired by the WHO MQAS would be helpful for self-evaluation, audit and inspection purposes.
BMJ Glob Health
descriptive study, health policy, health services research, health systems, public health