Biotech and Pharma

Amazon's license stumble in Maine displays inexperience in pharmacy, analysts say

Key Points
  • Amazon's pharmacy license applications in Maine were canceled by the state for incompleteness, rather than by Amazon, RBC analysts said.
  • RBC had suggested Maine licensing could be a signal for Amazon's plans.
  • The firm now suggests instead Amazon's licensing activities are evidence of its inexperience in the space.
Jeff Bezos, Chairman and founder of Amazon
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Amazon's plan for the pharmaceutical space is one of the biggest questions in health care. But the tech giant's inexperience in the space may be revealing itself, according to analysts at RBC Capital Markets.

Tuesday, RBC analysts suggested that the cancellation of pharmaceutical wholesaler license applications in Maine may imply that Amazon doesn't plan to enter the space.

But Wednesday, the analysts said it's become clear that the state, not Amazon, did the canceling, due to the applications not being complete by a Dec. 1 deadline.

"Our key takeaway from this experience is that Amazon will have to endure the same learning curve and regulatory hurdles in the space as any other company," RBC analysts George Hill, Stephen Hagan and Lee Lueder wrote in a research note. "The Maine experience reminds us that despite its mystique, Amazon is not immune to making mistakes or infallible."

"Wholesale licenses are required for Amazon Business to sell professional-use only products to health-care customers — from medical and dental offices to hospitals," an Amazon spokeswoman told CNBC. She referred other questions to its website.

Indeed, Morgan Stanley downgraded Henry Schein and Patterson Cos. on Wednesday because of competition from Amazon in dental distribution.

Amazon hasn't commented on what, if any, plans it may have to compete in the pharmaceutical space, but speculation about its entry has weighed heavily on stocks of retail pharmacies, drug distributors and pharmacy benefits managers.

In October, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Amazon had acquired pharmaceutical wholesaler licenses in several states, but experts quickly pointed out that the licenses supported existing businesses rather than a new area of prescription drugs.

RBC suggested Tuesday that the Maine licenses could be a leading indicator of Amazon's plans in pharmaceuticals, because the state doesn't require a medical device license for the sale of medical supplies; thus, RBC suggested, Amazon's application there may have suggested the licenses were for prescription medicines.

Wednesday, RBC referred to the canceled Maine applications as "evidence of inexperience," pointing out it couldn't find evidence of Amazon filing subsequent pharmacy licenses in the state.

"The consensus is that Amazon's other healthcare related licenses are for the device and supply distribution," the analysts wrote Wednesday. "Amazon does not need a license for this line of business in Maine, only for drugs. This would explain why Amazon abandoned the license process."

Many are skeptical Amazon will take on such a heavily regulated industry; Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO Stefano Pessina said as much at the Forbes Healthcare Summit last week.

"Maine's action shows that Amazon faces many challenges entering the pharmacy distribution and reimbursement system," said Adam Fein, of Pembroke Consulting. "The drug industry is much harder to disrupt than direct-to-consumer retailing or business-to-business channels for finished products."

RBC's analysts suggested the same, noting Wednesday that "Amazon's intentions for the drug supply chain are the subject of obsession at this point"— but still are no more clear.