India has already achieved a staggering number In terms of quantity or volume of generic medicines that it produces not just for India, but for many developed, developing and poorer countries, across the world. For this reason, India is popularly known as ‘The Pharmacy of The World’. No one questions this number at all, rather looks at India with a sense of admiration in this regard.
Nevertheless, for driving this volume growth trend further north, in a consistent and sustainable way, Indian pharma sector must ensure that its huge volume growth engine remains firmly placed on a solid bedrock of ‘world class’ drug quality, always. Any compromise in this crucial area, could strike a critical blow to this ‘tower of national pride’.
Ongoing several embarrassing incidents related to the drug manufacturing quality standards in India, are increasingly fueling the apprehension, whether or not India produces ‘World Class’ medicines for all patients across the world, independent of any other criteria, financial or otherwise. The debate has now taken an interesting turn, especially after near confirmation of this apprehension by the top drug regulator of India.
In this article, I shall discuss this important issue that hugely impacts all of us, giving my own perspective to it. Let me begin with one of the most recent incidents on the subject, involving the numero-uno of Indian pharmaceutical industry.
An overseas new product launch got prematurely aborted?
On September 25, 2015, by a Press Release, Sun Pharma Advanced Research Company Ltd. (SPARC) announced a major set back for the company. The set back may not be so much in terms of the company’s estimated revenue loss, but more on public perception across the world, about the manufacturing quality standards followed even by the top most pharma company of India.
SPARC made a public announcement through media that on March 2015 it had received a final approval from the Food and Drug Administration of the United States (USFDA) for the anti-epileptic drug – Elepsia XR (Levetiracetam extended-release tablets 1000 mg and 1500 mg). However, in the Complete Response letter (CRL) to the company’s New Drug Application (NDA) for the product, the USFDA has revoked its earlier approval, citing that the compliance status of the manufacturing facility was not acceptable on the date of approval. Elepsia XR is to be manufactured at Sun Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd (SPIL)’s Halol facility in Gujarat, the announcement said.
Sun Pharma had reportedly indicated in June 2015 that the Company had been working “very aggressively” to find partners for the product. It had “some advanced discussions” and aimed to launch the drug by the second half of fiscal 2016.
The international media lapped it up and reported this development with eye-catching headlines, one such was:
“India’s Sun Pharma research arm sees FDA nod for Elepsia XR yanked by FDA on manufacturing.”
Not a one-off isolated incident:
This matter can no way be treated as a one-off and an isolated incident, as it fits in well with a series of similar events, spanning over the last few years.
Looking at these disturbing adverse reports from the foreign drug regulators on the drug manufacturing quality standards in India, together with recent comments of the Indian drug regulator on the subject, serious health safety concerns on overall drug quality in the country, are being expressed now. The concern includes the local patients in India, as well.
Can the core issue be wished away?
Up until today, USFDA has altogether warned 39 manufacturing sites of 27 Indian pharma companies for breach of data integrity and not following specified manufacturing quality standards. The agency has also expressed that it treats these as potentially dangerous medicines for the consumption of patients in the US.
In 2015 alone, USFDA has reportedly detected such serious ‘short comings’ with 6 Indian drug makers, till September. A report from Financial Times (FT) states that the above numbers do not include the testing facilities facing sanctions from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in the GVK Biosciences related cases or from the World Health Organizations (WHO).
What is most worrying, none can possibly still fathom, if these alleged ‘reprehensible’ manufacturing practices are restricted to just a few players or are all pervasive across the Indian drug industry.
When the foreign regulators, such as USFDA and Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) of the United Kingdom (UK) continue raising the red flags on the manufacturing standards of the top pharma players of India, including the numero uno, a chilling sensation flows through the spine, as it were. The moot question that comes up: Are all the drugs manufactured in India safe for the local patients, offering desirable efficacy?
Keeping these in perspective, would it be prudent to wish away the drug quality related critical issues, raising a conspiracy theory against the US or EU or suspend discussions on any Foreign Trade Agreement (FTA)? I don’t reckon so, and would touch upon this point in course of my discussion below.
The murmur among the US doctors:
According to an article from Reuters of March 18, 2014, titled “Unease grows among US doctors over Indian drug quality”, some US doctors are also expressing concerns about the quality of generic drugs supplied by Indian manufacturers, following a flurry of recalls and ‘import bans’ by the USFDA.
This concern has been prompted by the fact that India supplies about 40 percent of generic and over-the-counter drugs used in the United States, making it the second-biggest supplier after Canada.
Not much complaint from the Indian doctors:
This is intriguing. Despite so much of furore of the regulatory agencies in the US and EU on the Indian drug quality standards, not much concern on the same has been expressed by the medical practitioners in India, just yet.
It appears, by and large, Indian doctors believe that branded generics are generally of good quality, and the quality of generics without a brand name is not as reliable, always.
This logic is beyond my comprehension. How come just fixing a brand name on a generic formulation makes it more acceptable in terms of quality, when both branded generics and generics without a brand name, have obtained the same regulatory approval from the same drug regulators in India and following the same regulatory process?
As you will see below, the situation has changed further now, especially after the admission of the DCGI about non-compliance of global manufacturing quality standards by majority of the formulation manufacturers in India, as reported by the media. The only silver lining to it is that whatever is being currently manufactured in India, presumably meets the regulators approval in conformance to the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of the country, without any credible data to the contrary.
Does India produce drugs of ‘World Class’ quality for all?
The key question that is being raised today: Does India produce ‘world class’ drugs and for all? This is mainly because, manufacturers of ‘world class’ drug quality always aim at competing for quality on the best global standards to remain competitive in the international markets, in all parameters. This should hold good even for the domestic Indian market, for all drugs, consumed by all the local patients, irrespective of their financial status.
A lurking fear keeps lingering, primarily apprehending that Indian drug manufacturing quality related issues are not confined only to the importers in the developed world, such as, the United States, European Union or Canada. There is no reason to vouch for either, that such gross violations are not taking place with the medicines consumed by the patients in India or in the poorer nations of Africa and other similar markets.
A recent international study on Indian drug quality:
The following study further aggravates the angst.
The September 2014 ‘Working Paper 20469’ of ‘The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)’ Cambridge, USA, titled “Poor Quality Drugs and Global Trade: A Pilot Study’, epitomizes the following:
- Experts claim that some Indian drug manufacturers cut corners and make substandard drugs for markets with non-existent, under-developed or emerging regulatory oversight, notably Africa.
The study assessed the quality of 1470 antibiotic and tuberculosis drug samples that claim to be made in India and were sold in Africa, India, and five mid-income non-African countries and found:
– 10.9 percent of these products fail a basic assessment of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API)
- The majority of the failures are substandard (7 percent) as they contain some correct API but the amount of API is under-dosed.
– The distribution of these substandard products is not random, they are more likely to be found as unregistered products in Africa than in India or non-African countries.
Claiming that the findings are robust, the NBER study points towards one likely explanation that Indian pharmaceutical firms and/or their export intermediaries do indeed differentiate drug quality according to the destination of consumption.
The above facts are alarming, especially when these flow from a survey report of a credible international institution. This is incomprehensible too, as all these are medicines, and are meant to be for relief or cure of ailments that the patients are suffering from, irrespective of whether they are from the developed, developing or poorer countries.
If it is still happening today, why are those manufacturers allowed by the Indian drug regulators to discriminate between the patients of the developed countries and the developing world, including India, to meet the same health care needs? This is absolutely cruel by any standard, undoubtedly.
‘As you sow, so shall you reap’:
Just as the above well-known proverb says that the actions or deeds repay in kind, reasonably frequent ‘import bans’ by the foreign drug regulators on drug quality norms, has probably prompted booming generic drug exports of Indian pharma now slowing down to US$15.3 billion in 2014-15, from US $14.84 billion in 2013-14.
Along side, these avoidable incidents have significantly dented India’s image as the ‘pharmacy of the world’, manufacturing affordable and high quality generic formulations for the patients across the world.
Indian drug regulator too now thinking afresh?
Yet another relevant question comes up. What happens, if during treatment of serious ailments such drugs fail to act for inferior quality? How would one possibly know in India, whether a death has occurred due to unresponsive poor quality of drugs or on account of severity of the ailments? How helpless are the patients in such a situation?
This sad feeling gets even stronger, when well after a prolonged defense of the high quality of drugs manufactured in India, no less than the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), airs his second thought on the same issue. This is vindicated by recent media reports on this subject.
On September 30, 2015, a media report stated that being virtually flustered by the USFDA and the drug regulators in the European Union, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) would place a proposal before the Ministry of Health, within the next six months, for an amendment to the existing pharmaceutical manufacturing laws under Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, and Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, in order to ‘bring them on par with international standards’.
The DCGI now believes that this remedial measure would raise drug manufacturing standards in India in line with the global cGMP standards, recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Currently, out of around 8,000 drug manufacturers in India, only 10 to15 percent are following the WHO guidelines, the report stated quoting the DCGI.
The new revelation further strengthens the apprehension about quality of drugs that Indian patients are consuming in the country with a strong hope for relief from the diseases that they suffer from.
The DCGI apparently admitted it, when he was quoted saying in the above report, “India has become a pharmacy of the world. So, we cannot live in isolation and will have to meet their expectations. Our system is in the process of improving.”
DCGI statement follows an important Government decision:
It is worth noting that the above comment of the DCGI comes close on the heels of an important Government decision in this regard.
On August 12, 2015, The Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that to facilitate domestic manufacture of quality medical products, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) on that day approved a proposal of strengthening and upgrading the drug regulatory system both at the Central and state level. The committee approved a budget of of INR17.5 billion (US$270 million) on this account.
The up gradation and strengthening of the system will also include setting up of new laboratories and training academy for regulatory and drug testing officials, the report added.
Yet Another significant development:
On October 5, 2015, in yet another significant development in this direction, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) of the United Kingdom (UK), by a ‘Press Release’, announced signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) of India.
This agreement will increase collaboration between India and UK in the area of medicines and medical devices with the aim of further improving public safety in both the countries. It is worth noting, around 25 percent of generic drugs consumed in the UK are made in India. Hence, the concern of MHRA over the safety of those medicines is understandable.
I wrote in this Blog on USFDA ‘Import Bans’ in my article of November 11, 2013, titled ‘USFDA ‘Import Bans’: The Malady Calls For Strong Bitter Pills.’
A valid question that is being asked by many in India today, why the issues like, alleged cGMP non-compliance, data fudging and falsification of other documents, especially with USFDA, have multiplied suddenly over the last few years. Why not as many of such issues were raised by the USFDA before around 3 to 4 years?
This is primarily because, of late the inspectors from the USFDA have significantly increased their efforts to ensure the drug manufacturing facilities from where both generic Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) and formulations are exported to the US, strictly follow the drug manufacturing standards, as stipulated by the USFDA. The fact that India supplies about 40 percent of generic and over-the-counter drugs currently used in the United States, has prompted this requirement to safeguard health safety of the American patients.
Such stringent USFDA audits commenced in 2012, when US Congress passed the FDA Safety and Innovation Act. This legislation, among others, requires the USFDA auditing all foreign facilities that make drugs for export to the US, as frequently as it does for the domestic drug manufacturing plants. Thereafter, we have seen a spurt in the USFDA inspections of the pharma manufacturing facilities in India, where from drugs are exported to the US. Hence, there does not seem to be any other credible ‘conspiracy theory’ on this issue.
As reported in ‘The New York Times’ of February 14, 2014, the same DCGI almost brushing aside the gravity of the situation arising out of repeated ‘import bans’, commented at that time, “If I have to follow US standards in inspecting facilities supplying to the Indian market, we will have to shut almost all of those.”
The top drug regulator seems to have changed his mind since then, and presumably is thinking differently now, as the Indian media very recently quoted the DCGI saying “India has become a pharmacy of the world. So, we cannot live in isolation and will have to meet their expectations. Our system is in the process of improving.”
This is a good omen, especially for the patients in India. If and when it gets translated into reality, with Kudos to the DCGI, we all would feel very proud saying, “The Pharmacy of the World now produces the World-Class drugs, for all” …God willing!
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.