GlaxoSmithKline steps up bribery probes, eyeing potential violations in 9 Middle Eastern countries

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has added two more countries to its bribery-investigation list. The U.K.-based drugmaker now says it faces probes in Jordan and Lebanon, in addition to recently announced investigations in Iraq and Poland.

Together with the behemoth investigation in China, that makes 5 different countries where GSK faces allegations of making improper payments to doctors in return for increased use of its products.

The latest investigations in the Middle East began after a whistleblower contacted the company in December, The Wall Street Journal reports. In Jordan, Glaxo allegedly issued business class plane tickets to doctors for travel to medical conferences, allowing the physicians to exchange the fares for two economy class tickets, so spouses or other family members could come along.

In both countries, the company allegedly handed over free vials of its drug Synflorix, which physicians could then sell to patients, the whistleblower said. GSK is also accused of paying top physicians speaking fees for lectures that never took place; the company faces similar allegations in Poland.

"GSK can confirm we are investigating allegations regarding the activity of a small number of individuals in our operations in Jordan and Lebanon," the company said in statement. "We started investigating using internal and external teams as soon as we became aware of these claims. These investigations have not yet concluded."

The company has also launched internal investigations in other Middle Eastern countries, the WSJ reports, including United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Syria.

Glaxo says it doesn't have a systemic problem with bribery or corruption, and points out that the number of compliance violations at the company last year--161--is comparable to those at other pharma companies. GSK fired 48 employees and disciplined 113 others last year for stepping over the line.

Plus, the company says it has stepped up compliance efforts in the Middle Eastern operations it's investigating. The company suspended interactions with government officials in those countries, too, the WSJ says.

- see the WSJ piece (sub. req.)
- get more from Reuters

Special Reports: Top 10 drugmakers in emerging markets - GSK | Top 10 pharma companies by 2013 revenue - GSK