Counterfeit Drugs In India: A Malady Much Deeper

Many debates and discussions continue being lined up in India almost regularly, generally by the pharma trade associations, besides a few others, on the issue of counterfeit drugs. A good number of these events are sponsored by the global and local anti-counterfeit product manufacturers and the related service providers, presumably to get a captive pharma audience. By and large, these gatherings are well publicized, and very rightly so, to focus for a while on this growing menace in the country.

One of the key objectives of such proceedings, I reckon, besides recommending the immediate action steps for the government in saddle, is to encourage the manufacturers of high quality drugs to protect their brands from the onslaught of counterfeiters through anti-counterfeit measures. Several of these involve a state of the art non-cloning technology. The core message that gets filtered-through, in most of these occasions is, if the suggested steps are followed by the drug companies with the related products and services, these won’t just help protect the patients’ health interest, but also provide a boost to the top and bottom lines in the pharma business, significantly.

There are no qualms about this initiative, not at all. Nonetheless, can this be considered a holistic approach to tackle the menace of counterfeit drugs, especially by the pharma players in India, and considering various other different ways the menace keep striking the patients, so surreptitiously?

Thus, in this article, my point of focus will be on a critical question, which is not asked with the same vigor always in many of the above events: Hasn’t the malady of counterfeit drugs in India spread much wider, and taken its root considerably deeper?

Counterfeit drugs and what it includes?

According to the World Health Organization (W.H.O), there is currently no universally agreed definition among its member states in what is widely known as ‘Counterfeit medicines’. Nevertheless, W.H.O does indicate that the term ‘counterfeit’ is widely used to include falsified, unlicensed, falsely packaged, stolen and substandard medical products. Jurisdictions across the world define counterfeit medicines in many different ways.

It’s worth noting here, according to W.H.O, substandard medical products also belong to this category. In 2009, W.H.O defined ‘substandard’ drugs as “genuine medicines produced by the manufacturers authorized by the NMRA (national medicines regulatory authority) which do not meet quality specifications set for them by national standards”.

Hence, notwithstanding whatever will be accepted as the general consensus of the W.H.O members on the definition of counterfeit drugs, from the patients’ perspective, any drug failing to meet with the claimed efficacy, safety and quality standards, should come under the same ‘category definition’, including substandard drugs.

Controversy over the term ‘Counterfeit’:

Many W.H.O member countries believe that the term counterfeit is closely associated and legally defined within the Intellectual Property (IP) legislation, and concentrates on trademark protection. Consequently, usage of this terminology has been perceived to have reduced the focus from what is first and foremost a public health issue. Thus, it has become quite important for W.H.O to separate the different categories of what is widely used as ‘counterfeit drug’, for the purpose of analysis and identifying strategies, to effectively address the issue of the public health menace that such activities give rise to.

Types of counterfeit drugs:

A Review Article titled “Anti-counterfeit Packaging in Pharma Industry” dated February 17, 2011, published in the “International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences”, divided the types of counterfeit mechanisms into five categories, in which drugs are manufactured or distributed without proper regulatory clearance, and do not meet the determined standards of safety, quality, and efficacy:

  • No active ingredient (43 percent)
  • Low levels of active ingredient (21 percent)
  • Poor quality drugs (24 percent)
  • Wrong ingredients (2 percent)
  • Wrong packaging or source (7 percent)

This particular article will dwell mainly on a very important segment in this category – the substandard or poor quality drugs.

The magnitude of the problem:

On May 17, 2016, a Research Article titled, “Public Awareness and Identification of Counterfeit Drugs in Tanzania: A View on Antimalarial Drugs”, published in ‘Advances in Public Health’ – a peer-reviewed, open access journal that publishes original research articles, highlighted something that should cause a great concern not just for the Indian drug regulators, but also the Indian pharma manufacturers, in general.

The research paper, besides other points, underscored the following:

“Currently, it is estimated that 10–15 percent of the global drugs supplied are counterfeit. The prevalence is higher in developing countries in Africa and in parts of Asia and Latin America where up to 30–60 percent of drugs on the market are counterfeit. India is a major supplier of poor quality drugs whereby 35–75 percent of fake/counterfeit drugs globally originate from India.”

Another report of ‘Pharmexcil’ dated October 04, 2010 also states: “According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 75 percent of fake drugs supplied world over have origins in India, followed by 7 percent from Egypt and 6 percent from China. India is also a leading source of high quality generic and patent drugs in the legitimate commerce worldwide. Since drugs made in India are sold around the world, the country’s substandard drug trade represents a grave public health threat that extends far beyond the subcontinent.”

Substandard drugs: a potential crisis in public health:

An article with the above title, published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology on November 29, 2013 cautioned on the potential crisis in public health with substandard drugs, as follows:

“Poor-quality medicines present a serious public health problem, particularly in emerging economies and developing countries, and may have a significant impact on the national clinical and economic burden. Attention has largely focused on the increasing availability of deliberately falsified drugs, but substandard medicines are also reaching patients because of poor manufacturing and quality-control practices in the production of genuine drugs (either branded or generic). Substandard medicines are widespread and represent a threat to health because they can inadvertently lead to health care failures, such as antibiotic resistance and the spread of disease within a community, as well as death or additional illness in individuals.”

Hence, the potential of health crisis with various substandard drugs is quite similar to other types of counterfeit drugs.

Substandard drugs and small pharma players:

As I said before, the malady of counterfeit, fake and substandard drugs are spreading much wider and deeper in India. What’s happening around today in this area prompts us to believe, it may no longer be proper to keep all the large pharma manufacturers away from the ambit of discussion on substandard or counterfeit drugs. This apprehension is raising its head, as it is generally believed that only small, unknown, or fly-by-night type of drug manufacturers, are responsible for substandard, fake or counterfeit drugs. Whereas, the reality seems to be different. There are now ample reasons to believe that even some large drug manufacturers, both local and global, who have been caught by the regulator for the same wrongdoing, are also equally responsible for causing similar adverse health impact on patients.

Substandard drugs and large pharma players:

That the issue of substandard drugs is quite widespread in India, involving both global and local pharma players – small and large, is also quite evident from the following report, published in the May 14, 2016 edition of the well-reputed national daily – Hindustan Times:

“A day after French major Sanofi announced a recall of some batches of its popular painkiller Combiflam, India’s drug regulator said over 102 medicines have been highlighted for quality concerns and withdrawal in the last five months. The list includes several popular painkillers.”

The report also indicated that these are generic medicines, both with and without brand names, such as, CIP-ZOX of Cipla, Orcerin of MacLeod Pharma, Zerodol-SP of Ipca Laboratories, Pantoprazole of Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd and Norfloxacin of Karnataka Antibiotics & Pharmaceutical Ltd. According to the public notices of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), these batches were manufactured in June 2015 and July 2015, and carried expiry dates of May 2018 and June 2018.

The CDSCO also reportedly said that in notices posted on its website in February and April, 2015, it found some batches of Combiflam to be “not of standard quality” as they failed disintegration tests. The point to note is, according to the US-FDA, disintegration test is used to assess the time it takes for tablets and capsules to break down inside the body and are used as a quality-assurance measure.

“All drugs listed under the drug alert list should be recalled with immediate effect. We have found some serious problems with the making of the drug because of which we have highlighted quality concerns. Hence, recall is necessary for all companies,” GN Singh, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), reportedly told the above newspaper.

Should the ‘intent behind’ be considered as the key differentiating factor?

This takes me to another question: What’s the ‘intent behind’ manufacturing substandard drugs? It is not difficult to make out that the only ‘intent behind’ manufacturing substandard drugs by illegal, some small or fly-by-night type of drug operators would be to make quick money, by cutting corners, and criminally falsifying the entire process.

Until recently, I used to strongly believe that those large manufacturers who are getting caught for releasing substandard drugs to the market, have made sheer mistakes, and these are no more than minor aberrations. However, recent findings by the US-FDA, after rigorous manufacturing quality audit of several production facilities of large and small generic drug producers of India, make me wonder whether this thin differentiating line of ‘intent behind’ manufacturing substandard drugs, though still exists, has started getting blurred. The foreign regulators have imposed import ban on drugs produced in those facilities on the ground of willingly compromising drug quality, and grossly falsifying data.

I am not going into those much discussed details here, once again, as the drugs involved in the above cases are meant for exports and the import bans, by the foreign regulators were aimed at protecting the health and safety of citizens of those countries. In this article my focus is on India, and health interest of the local Indian population.

Thus fathoming a different ‘intent behind’ manufacturing substandard drugs, especially by the large and well-known manufacturers, is the real challenge. What sort of anti-counterfeit events will be able to possibly address this perturbing issue, that is now getting revealed much faster than even before?

Who in India ensures that all drugs are safe?

Possibly none, not even the drug regulators and the enforcers of the drug laws, as a number of national and international media reports reveal. General public doesn’t get any assurance from any authorities that the medicines sold by the drug retail outlets, pan India, are all standard quality and genuine.

At the same time, it is equally challenging for anyone to ascertain, with absolute certainty, that it’s a counterfeit, substandard or a fake drug, in whatever name we call it, is responsible for avoidable suffering or even death of an individual. In such a sad eventuality, one has no other choice but to accept that the causative factor was either a wrong diagnosis of the disease, or delayed onset of treatment.

Is CDSCO still in a denial mode?

It’s an irony that the government sources often highlight that the incidence of substandard, spurious or fake drugs in India has declined from around 9 percent in the 1990s, to around 5 percent in 2014-15, quoting the CDSCO sample survey findings.

Nevertheless, while looking at the same CDSCO survey results of the last four years – from 2011-12 to 2014-15, the incidence of spurious and substandard drugs in India appears to be static, if not marginally increased, as follows:

Year Tested Samples Substandard Samples Spurious or Adulterated samples % Failed
2011-12 48,082,00 2,186.00 133.00 4.82
2012-13 58,537.00 2,362.00 70.00 4.15
2013-14 72,712.00 3,028.00 118.00 4.32
2014-15 74,199.00 3,702.00 83.00 5.10

Source: Central Drugs Control Organization (CDSCO)

In my view, these CDSCO results should be taken perhaps with dollops of salt, not merely the sample size for these surveys is too small, but also the complexity involved in the collection of the right kind of samples that will always pass the acid test of independent experts’ scrutiny.  Right representational sample size – state-wise, is so important, primarily considering that India is the world’s third-largest pharmaceutical market by volume, consumes 383 billion medicines per annum, according to a 2015 Government report, and is quite a heterogeneous pharma market.

A September 06, 2016 media report well captured the palpable hubris of the Government on this worrying subject. It quoted the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) – Dr. G N Singh as saying: “This is an encouraging trend when it comes to comparing Indian made generics with that produced in regulated markets. This will help us dispel the myth that India is a source of substandard drugs as compared to any other regulated market.”

Interestingly, other studies and reports do indicate that this menace could well be, at least, thrice as large.

Be that as it may, according to an October 22, 2016 media report, CDSCO is expected to release the findings of the latest survey on ‘spurious drugs’ in India by end October 2016.

Two recent good intents of CDSCO:

Apparently, as a response to the widespread public criticism on this issue, despite being in a denial mode earlier, CDSCO has recently expressed two good intents to address this issue, as follows:

  • As reported on October 18, 2016, it has sent a recommendation to the Union Ministry of Health to amend the Drugs & Cosmetics Act to facilitate implementation of bar coding and Unique Identification Number (UIN) on every pack of domestic pharma products.
  • To ensure consistency and uniformity in the inspection process, on May 26, 2016, by a Public Notice, it issued a new draft checklist of ‘Risk Based Inspection of the Pharma Manufacturing Facilities’ for verification of GMP compliance as per the provisions stated under Schedule M of Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, and sought suggestions from the stakeholders. This checklist would be used by drug regulatory enforcement agencies as a science based tool. It also envisaged that the pharma industry would find this checklist useful for self-assessment.

Let’s now wait and watch, to get to know the timeline of translating these good intents into reality on the ground, and the impact that these decisions will make to reverse the current worrying trend of counterfeit and substandard drugs in India.

Conclusion:

The malady of counterfeit or substandard drugs is not just India centric. Various credible sources have estimated that around a million people fall victim to such so called ‘medicines’, each year. However, unlike many other countries, India still doesn’t have any structured and effective regulatory or other mechanisms, not even any spine-chilling deterrent, in place to address this public health menace of humongous implications.

That said, besides serious health hazards, the adverse financial impact of substandard drugs on patients is also significant. Such drugs, even when non-fatal, are much less effective, if not ineffective or trigger other adverse reactions. Thus, a longer course of treatment, or switching over to a different medication altogether, may often be necessary, multiplying the cost of treatment.

In that sense, substandard, spurious, fake or counterfeit drugs, in whatever name one describes these, increase the disease burden manifold, besides being life-threatening. This issue assumes greater significance in India, where 58.2 percent of the total health expenditure is incurred out-of-pocket by a vast majority of the population. Medicines alone, which are mostly purchased from private retail outlets, across India, account for between 70 and 77 per cent of the individual out of pocket health spending, according to a W.H.O report.

High decibel campaigns on various anti-counterfeit technology solutions for fast selling, or expensive brands of large pharma companies, whether sponsored by placing the commercial interest at the top of mind, or even otherwise, are welcome, so are the two recent good intents of the Union Government, in this area.

However, the desirable proactive focus on curbing the menace of substandard medicines in India, which cause similar health risks as any other type of counterfeit drugs, does not seem to be as sharp, not just yet, barring the pharma export sector. Nor does this issue attract similar zest for a meaningful discourse related to patients’ health and safety within the country, as associated with various other anti-counterfeiting technology solution oriented events. The anomaly remains intriguing, especially when the malady spreads, with its root reaching deeper.

By: Tapan J. Ray   

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion. 

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