Criticality of Drug Quality In The Moment Of Truth

When global health emergencies strike unannounced – in the scale and magnitude of new coronavirus, it shakes the health care system of all countries, in varying degree though, irrespective of the robustness of the economy. In such situation, the robustness of health care infrastructure, stringent manufacturing quality standards, operational flexibility for seamless sourcing of all drug ingredients in the required quantities, besides speed and agility of the delivery system – are put to the acid test.

Anytime readiness to effectively neutralize this crisis is of utmost importance. Accordingly, the key national goal should be to create a robust ‘whole’ that is much more than the sum total of each of each of the above factors – a sturdy ‘drug security system’ for the country. The most populous country of the world – China may have succeeded in building a 1,600-bed hospital coronavirus hospital in just 10 days, completing on February 05, 20120. But it is still looking for necessary drugs from other countries, such as the United States.

Curiously, China hasn’t yet disclosed its reason. More so, when the country is the top global supplier of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API), including antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, along with India, according to the World Health Organization (W.H.O). This draws many to look at the general apprehension on the questionable quality of drugs that China, allegedly, produces. But, could this be the reason?

Nevertheless, regardless of inquisitiveness to know the reason, the question mark on its drug quality remains. And this is also not the risk-taking time for any nation, as it could possibly endanger lives of scores of the impacted population. The criticality of drug quality in ‘The Moment of Truth,’ such as, the new coronavirus emergency, can only be wished away at one’s own peril.

On the other hand, the confidence expressed in India, as we shall see below, in ‘drug security’, just based on adequate ARV drug availability appears to be coming from a different plane, although the drug quality issue is exactly the same in India, if not more concerning. From the above perspective, my today’s article will focus on this subject, purely based on available data, starting with the request of the Chinese authorities for ARV drugs from the United States.

Chinese request for ARV drugs:

‘U.S. Drugmakers Ship Therapies to China, Seeking to Treat Coronavirus – AbbVie, Gilead, others respond to Chinese authorities’ requests for antiviral drugs to test effectiveness against deadly respiratory illness.’ This was reported by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on January 27, 2020. It goes without saying that these antiviral drugs also include Anti-Retrovirals (ARVs).

AbbVie Inc. and Johnson & Johnson  are among the drug makers that have begun shipping drugs approved to treat HIV, while Gilead Sciences Inc. is exploring whether it should send an antiviral therapy it is developing.

It isn’t known whether the drugs would be able to help contain the explosion of respiratory virus infections sweeping the country or provide relief to infected patients. Chinese authorities have requested the shipments to test the drugs’ effectiveness in containing the new coronavirus, the report added.

An intriguing difference between India and China:

Interestingly, China is looking for sourcing some of these ARV drugs from the United States and not from India, either – one of the top producers of these drugs, as W.H.O reported.

In contrast, according to an Indian report of February 04, 2020: ‘Leading domestic drug companies have said they are ready with supply of anti-retrovirals (ARVs) that seem to work in treating the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).’

As I said earlier, although, China hasn’t yet specified the reasons behind their decision on ARV drug import from the United States, but could it have any link on the internal general apprehension of these drugs quality, safety and effectiveness?

Acknowledging for a moment that this is global allegation on Chinese drugs, in general. So is regarding India, as we shall see below. Then where does India stand on this score, especially in view of the confidence with ARV drugs, as exhibited in the above media report from India? That said, the logical question that surfaces now – why is the request for ARV drugs?

Why ARV drugs?

Although W.H.O said that there is ‘No known effective treatments’ for new coronavirus, as yet, various reports do indicate the use of ARV drugs in the treatment of 2019-nCoV:

  • A combination of flu and HIV medications are helping treat severe cases of the new coronavirus in Thailand.
  • Chinese health officials are already administering the HIV and flu drugs to fight the coronavirus, but the combination of the three together in a cocktail seemed to improve the treatment.

The Scientist, on February 02, 2020 reported that large doses of the flu drug oseltamivir combined with HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir, reportedly, improved the conditions of several patients in Bangkok, Thailand.

Global dependence on Chinese and Indian generic drugs:

About 80 percent of the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs), including many ARVs, which are used for manufacturing of drug formulations in the United States are said to come from China and other countries like India. This appeared in the article titled, ‘U.S. Dependence on Pharmaceutical Products From China,’ published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on August 14, 2019.

India’s dependence on Chinese APIs:

Latest statistics from Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics tabled in the Parliament show that in 2017-18, Indian imports of APIs and drug intermediates from China increased to 68.36 per cent. The same at 67.56 per cent in 2018-19, still remained the largest share in total Indian imports, with the overall India’s dependence on imports going up by 23 per cent from 2016-17 to 2018-19.

As reported in the media on November 22, 2019, India’s national strategies, such as, “2015 – Year of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients” or ‘Make in India’ campaign, to promote indigenous means of production continue to be relegated on paper. Even, the current National Security Advisor had warned that Chinese dependence on API can be a national security threat.

According to the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP), Chinese API imports are due to economic considerations, which are essentially cheaper and more cost-effective for the Indian drug manufacturers, the above report highlighted.

Against this backdrop, the above local media report indicating, leading domestic drug companies are ready to supply anti-retrovirals (ARVs), may invite more questions than answers. Added to this come the critical quality issues with drugs manufactured in China and India.

Quality issues with Chinese drugs:

Credible documents highlight, as China’s pharmaceutical industry is not effectively regulated by the Chinese government, its regulatory apparatus is inadequately resourced to oversee thousands of Chinese drug manufacturers. Even if Beijing made such oversight a greater priority. This has resulted in significant drug safety scandals.

Although, the drug quality related concerns seem to be even more related to India, the drug industry of the country, reportedly, remains in a denial over most of such charges involving drug-quality.

India tops with the most quality related FDA warning letters in 2019:

The author of the above article reiterates, ‘Americans are expecting India, which supplies a significant percentage of the finished drug supply in the U.S., to get its act together to improve the quality of the medicines it makes, I am afraid they will be waiting a long time for that to happen. The only solution is for American lawmakers to enact new regulations focused on holding those who intentionally put public health at risk to account.’

To avoid ‘your-opinion-versus-my-opinion’ type of a debate with this article, let us look at some hard facts. These are from the ‘warning letters’ on drug quality, issued to various pharma companies, across the world, by the USFDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). The details were well captured in an article, titled ‘The country with the most FDA warning letters in 2019,’ published by Pharma Manufacturing on January 20, 2020.

Some key CDER findings:

As I consider, the top three CDER findings may be summarized as follows:

  • In 2019, CDER issued dozens warning letters for manufacturing issues to pharma companies outside the U.S. One country in particular – India – received the highest number of letters.
  • CDER’s office of Manufacturing Quality Letters issued 43 letters to companies outside of the U.S. Of those letters:

-   20 were aimed at facilities in India.

-   With 11, China received the second most manufacturing quality warning letters.

-   The rest of the letters were distributed among plants in Europe, Costa Rica, Singapore, Turkey and others.

  • The data from CDER shows that India has the poorest rate of FDA inspections with acceptable outcomes (83 percent) — much lower than China (90 percent) and the U.S. (93 percent).

Conclusion:

Today, a host of effective drugs and vaccines are available to treat a number of both non-infectious and infectious ailments, including many life-threatening viral diseases. However, the effectiveness of these medicines in treating such diseases, as well as many other illnesses, gets significantly compromised by questionable quality and distribution of these medicinal products. Even way back, a similar concern was deliberated in an article captioned, ‘Substandard drugs: a potential crisis for public health’, published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (BJCP), on November 29, 2013..

It may ordinarily remain undetected, sans stringent and wide-scale regulatory scrutiny. Additionally, a number of involved countries still remain in a denial mode. It’s also a fact, several governments may not have wherewithal for the same, particularly when the manufacturing units are too many, such as in China and India.

However, when a critical national health emergency strikes, unannounced, like the new coronavirus, the moment of truth dawns. Obviously, the national governments would want to be risk averse and prefer sourcing the best of drugs, to rapidly contain the spread of the disease, saving more lives. It’s not difficult to fathom, either, any country is unlikely to admit this reality, in public, even while taking measures for the same.

China’s sourcing of ARV and other drugs from the United States may or may not be due to the drug quality reasons. Nonetheless, I reckon, the criticality of drug quality issues can possibly be best realized, mostly when the ‘Moment of Truth’ arrives. Unannounced! Just like a bolt from the blue!

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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