GlaxoSmithKline is under criminal investigation from the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) following a series of international bribery allegations.
The British pharmaceuticals giant has been in contact with the watchdog in recent months in the wake of claims that it funnelled hundreds of millions of pounds to doctors and officials in countries around the globe to boost sales of its drugs.
Chinese police have accused the company of dispensing 3bn yuan (£285m) in bribes under the leadership Mark Reilly, the former head of its Chinese business. Authorities in the country say the bribes resulted in billions of pounds in “illegal revenue” for the company.
Mr Reilly left China as the allegations surfaced. He returned to the country to assist with the investigation, but has since been barred from leaving. Earlier this month he was alleged to have pressured sales teams into bribing health workers, and accused of fraud.
GSK has described the accusations as “shameful”. In a statement, the company said the SFO had “opened a formal criminal investigation into the group’s commercial practices”.
It said it would co-operate with the investigation and said it was committed to operating its business to the “highest ethical standards”.
GSK has been in regular contact with both the SFO and the Department of Justice in the US – where it has a secondary stock market listing – since the Chinese allegations surfaced last July. Both countries have strong anti-bribery and corruption laws which can make companies liable for prosecution even if no crimes were committed on UK or US soil.
Under Britain's Bribery Act, companies can be found liable for corruption by failing to prevent it or, more seriously, if top management is found to have turned a blind eye. The most serious offences can result in damaging fines and debarment from public contracts, according to legal experts.
In April, GSK said it was launching its own investigations into accusations of bribery in Poland, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. The company has repeatedly insisted that it does not have a systemic problem with bribery, and any wrongdoing that may be found was performed by rogue salesmen out of the company’s control processes.
The SFO did not give any details beyond confirming the existence of the investigation.