Data Manipulation: Leapfrogging Dangerously Into Clinical Trial Domain

Over the last several years, repeated allegations of gross data manipulative practices, detected by global drug regulatory agencies, such as USFDA and MHRA, have shaken the Indian pharma exporting companies hard.

This has been hurting the overall business performance of most of these players, considerably, besides other consequential fallouts

Significant numbers of pharma manufacturing facilities of different scale and size have been receiving ‘Import Alerts/Warning Letters’, at regular intervals, from the overseas drug regulators. All such steps have resulted in refusal of entry of medicines manufactured in those plants into the importing countries. As on date, most of these bans are for the United States (US), some for the United Kingdom (UK) and now a fresh one that covers all the 28 countries of the European Union (EU).

Consequently, the drug export performance of the country has started moving south, as I indicated in my blog post of September 29, 2014, titled “Make in India…Sell Any where in The World”: An Indian Pharma Perspective.

While looking at the future, the situation seems to be even more concerning than what is generally envisaged today, as it involves many homegrown local pharma behemoths, including the topper of the Indian pharma league table – Sun Pharma.

Time to take the bull by the horns:

These are regular and serious episodes of allegedly deliberate wrong doings involving life saving medicines. It is about time that without further delay the Indian Government and the country’s drug regulators accept unequivocally that there is something fundamentally wrong in this area that needs to be set right urgently.

To come out of this peril soon, competent authorities need to first ascertain without squandering much time on the utopian “conspiracy theory”, whether this seemingly uncontrollable issue falls under:

  • Technical incompetence
  • Inadequate resource deployment
  • Or just an outcome of generally all pervasive and a very Indian “Jugaad” mindset

It could well be a mix of all the three above factors in different proportions.

‘Data manipulation’ dangerously leapfrogging into clinical trial domain:

So far, incidences of alleged data falsification were restricted mostly to drug manufacturing activities. Alarmingly, it has now leapfrogged into the immensely important domain of ‘Clinical Trials’, based on which the drug regulators decide on the ‘Marketing Approval’ of medicines for patients’ consumption, wherever required.

If the Government does not nip it in the bud, ruthlessly and now, it has the potential to heavily impact the innocent patients even costing their precious lives.

What it means commercially?

According to Pharmaceutical Export Promotion Council (Pharmexcil), the Indian pharmaceutical industry could lose around US$1 – US$1.2 billion worth of exports due to the latest decision of the European Union to ban 700 generic drugs that earlier received European Union (EU) clearance for sale in their member countries.

According to Pharmexcil, Europe accounts for US$3 billion out of total Indian pharma exports of US$15.4 billion, which includes both APIs and formulations. This is the first time, when there has been a negative growth in pharma exports to the EU.

Unrolling the GVK Bio saga:

On July 22, 2015 Federal Institute for Medicines and Medical Products of Germany reportedly posted the notice (in German language) of ban of 700 generic drugs effective August 21, 2015. This ban would be applicable to all 28 EU member nations.

Accordingly, from the above date, all these drugs of both the Indian and multinational companies for which clinical trials were done by India’s Hyderabad based GVK Biosciences, cannot be distributed or sold by pharma companies, wholesalers, drug stores and other outlets in the EU, as indicate in the above notice. This would be the largest ban of generic drugs imposed by the European Union, as it comes into effect.

This ban is reportedly the ultimate outcome of an inspection in 2014 by the French authorities of the GVK site that handled the clinical trials for those 700 drugs. The French inspectors found that a number of electrocardiograms were falsified by GVK Bio employees as part of 9 approval studies between 2008 and 2014.

Following this finding, earlier on January 23, 2015, by a Press Release, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had announced that a number of medicines for which authorization in the European Union (EU) was primarily based on clinical studies conducted at GVK Biosciences in Hyderabad, India, should be suspended.

Though GVK Bio has disputed the claims, it has reportedly set aside up to US$6.5 million for new studies on these drugs.

Indian Government blames ‘vested interests supporting Big Pharma’!

Interestingly, on July 23, 2015, The Financial Express reported, “the Modi government has asked the heads of India’s diplomatic missions in EU member countries and at the European Commission (EC)-level to take up the issue with the concerned authorities and ensure that it is not ‘blown out of proportion’ by ‘vested interests’ supporting the Big Pharma (innovator drug companies).”

However, it is even more interesting that earlier on April 16, 2015, quoting the CEO of GVK Biosciences Private Limited Reuters reported, “India may go to the World Trade Organization (WTO) if the European Union does not reconsider a decision to suspend the sale of about 700 generic drugs that were approved based on clinical trials by GVK Biosciences.”

It is noteworthy, despite the above public announcement, between April and July 2015, India has not lodged any complaint to the WTO on this mega ban in EU, involving clinical trials conducted by GVK Biosciences.

In my view, any tangible immediate outcome of the Indian diplomatic move, particularly on this ban in the EU, as reported above, appears rather unlikely, if at all.

The rigmarole continues:

The narrative of alleged gross falsification of sensitive clinical trial data does not end here. Almost replicating what happened earlier with frequent incidences of drug manufacturing data manipulation, the same rigmarole now leapfrogs into another important domain with similar intensity.

On June 30, 2015, close on the heels of the above GVK Biosciences saga, the World Health Organization issued a ‘Notice of Concern’ after inspection of Chennai-based Contract Research Company, Quest Life Sciences facility.

It also brought to light, critical deviations from GCP (Good Clinical Practices), over data integrity, subject safety and quality assurance and in gross violation of procedures during clinical trials for HIV drugs, such as, Lamivudine, Zidovudine and Nevarapine dispersible tablets from Micro Labs.

WHO inspectors reportedly found that “two-thirds of electrocardiograms performed on patients were duplicates with dates and names changed by the company”.

The WHO letter also underscored, “These issues appear to be systemic in nature and occurring many times over a significant period of time, and not only as a one-time incident for the study submitted to WHO.”

Again, almost depicting the past, there does not seem to be any perceptible and strong regulatory interventions in India in this regard, event after the above ‘Notice of Concern’ from the WHO.

Could assume a snowballing effect:

This situation may eventually assume a snowballing effect, when data related malpractices in clinical trials would catch up with drug manufacturing related data manipulation detected by the foreign drug regulators in India. I have just given an example of its continuation in the clinical trial domain.

The following are a few examples of just the last six months of 2015 of the continuation of the same in the drug manufacturing area:

Cadila Pharmaceuticals Limited:

In a letter dated February 25, 2015 to Cadila Pharmaceuticals Limited, the USFDA wrote that in the pharma manufacturing facility of the company, located at 294 GIDC Industrial Estate, Ankleshwar, Gujarat, their (USFDA) investigator identified significant deviations from current good manufacturing practice (CGMP) for the manufacture of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs). Those deviations cause the APIs manufactured there to be adulterated, in that the methods used in, or the facilities or controls used for, their manufacture, processing, packing, or holding do not conform to, or are not operated or administered in conformity with CGMP.

Emcure Pharmaceuticals Ltd.:

On July 13, 2015, by an ‘import alert’ posted on its website, the USFDA announced that the regulatory agency had barred imports from Hinjewadi manufacturing plant in Maharashtra of Emcure Pharmaceuticals Ltd., after their inspection revealed the company was not meeting manufacturing quality standards.

Aurobindo Pharma Ltd.:

Again, according to a July 22, 2015 media report, “Hyderabad-based Aurobindo Pharma is the latest addition to an expanding list of Indian drug firms that have come under the scanner of the US health regulator.” In this case also the USFDA reportedly raised issues related to the quality management systems of the company.

Business sustainability could be in jeopardy:

There are ample evidences that manipulations of specified drug quality standards, are making even the large home grown pharma companies to pay through the nose. In fact, it has already cost some of these companies an arm and a leg, at times jeopardizing even their very existence. One such company is Ranbaxy. The issues related to data fudging of Ranbaxy have been so complex and widespread that its recent acquirer Sun Pharma has already started struggling to keep its neck above water with this brand new acquisition.

According to July 27, 2015 media reports, GVK Biosciences are also in parleys to sell the business, following EU drug regulators’ serious allegations of clinical trial data manipulation at its Hyderabad facility.

Again, media reports of July 30, 2015 indicated that hit by the USFDA imposing import ban on three of its manufacturing facilities, Ipca Laboratories reported 86 per cent decline in net profit for first quarter ended June 30, 2015.

Though, some domestic pharma companies are still out of it, with grace, if this overall menace remains unchecked and not intervened by the Government, it could cost the nation dear, at least when it comes to near term exports business growth and global disrepute for the delinquency.

Are medicines for domestic consumption safe and effective?

When such rampant data manipulation can take place for ‘export quality’ of drugs, what about the quality standards of medicines, which are manufactured for consumption of local patients?

Despite intense furore on this subject, Indian drug regulators at the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), very strangely, do not seem to be much concerned on this critical issue, at least, as perceived by majority of the stakeholders. It appears from the precedents, our drug regulators seem to act promptly, mostly when the Supreme Court of the country directs them for any specific action for public interest.

Considering blatant violations of GMP and GCP standards that are increasingly coming to the fore related to ‘export quality’ drugs in India, and that too only after the inspections by the foreign drug regulators, the following questions float at the top of my mind:

  • Why no such warnings are forthcoming at all from the Indian drug regulators?
  • Does it mean that the level of conformance to GMP and GCP is hundred percent for all medicines manufactured and clinically evaluated in India for the consumption of local patients?
  • If yes, why such incidences are not uploaded to the CDSCO website, just like USFDA?
  • If not, why?

Conclusion:

Increasing incidences of repeated GMP and GCP violations by the Indian drug exporters, as enunciated mostly by the USFDA, MHRA and now EMA are, in turn, fueling the apprehensions of many Indian stakeholders on the quality manufacturing and clinical evaluation of those drugs in the country.

In the critical public health safety area, there does not seem to be any room for diplomatic maneuvering by the Government, whatever is its financial impact on the drug exports performance of India.

This can be corrected, only if the Indian pharma industry and the Government, in tandem, wish to move in the right direction. Searching for justifications within imaginary ‘vested interests’ and self-created ‘conspiracy theory’ would be futile and counterproductive.

Making the wrongdoers swallow strong bitter pills would help salvaging the seemingly uncontrollable regulatory situation. Additionally, it would stop inviting disrepute to the country that the world was referring to, even until recently, as the ‘pharmacy of world’.

Any attempt to trivialize the situation, could meet with grave consequences  and prove to be foolhardy. The emerging scenario ultimately may even compel the local doctors and hospitals to avoid prescribing drugs of those companies involved in such wrong doings against patients’ interests. This actually happened earlier with Ranbaxy, though briefly. It is also possible that many erudite patients on their own may request the doctors to prescribe equivalent drugs of pharma MNCs, enjoying better brand equity in this regard.

Drug quality related avoidable malpractices and attempted hoodwinking to regulators, are taking place at a time when Prime Minister Modi is going global to give a boost to his much publicized ‘Make in India’ campaign.

In the current aspirational business climate of the country, it is an irony that alleged ‘Data Manipulation’, which was so far confined to pharma manufacturing activities in India, instead of getting mitigated, is now leapfrogging into the related clinical trial domain too, with utter disregard to patients’ health safety interest and the reputation of the country.

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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