India has over 135 US-FDA approved pharmaceutical manufacturing units, at present. This number is very significant ranking second behind the United States, and was driving the growth of generic drug exports in the top pharma market of the world. Riding on the wave of such stellar progress, a hubris seems to have set in the related operational areas of many Indian pharma players, especially the drug exporters.
This incredible ride continued, until a first major jolt shook all concerned in this business. It came first in the form of an unprecedented hefty fine for wrong doing, followed by the US- FDA ‘import bans’ of several drugs, manufactured around 44 different Indian drug-making facilities, since over the last five years.
The first major jolt:
Not so long ago, just in 2013, quality related concerns with generic drugs exported from India came to the fore, after Ranbaxy reportedly pleaded guilty and paid a hefty fine of US$ 500 million for falsifying clinical data and distributing ‘adulterated medicines’ in the United States.
Thereafter, US-FDA banned drug imports from Ranbaxy and Wockhardt, manufactured in all those facilities that failed to conform to its cGMP quality standards.
Those are the stories for generic formulations. It then covered the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) too. On January 23, 2014, USFDA notified Ranbaxy Laboratories, that it is prohibited from manufacturing and distributing APIs from its another Indian manufacturing facility in Toansa. With this step, erstwhile Ranbaxy had virtually no access to the top pharmaceutical market of the world.
Was it for raising the bar of quality norms?
Many of us felt and expressed that ‘import bans’ of Indian drugs due to failing quality parameters, manufactured in certain facilities of largely Indian pharma companies, are mostly due to higher stringent quality norms of the US-FDA, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Nevertheless, this argument does not carry much weight, as an exporter will always have to conform to the set quality standards of the importers, whatever these are.
Indian drug regulator too made a much avoidable remark:
Unfortunately, amid such a scenario, instead of taking appropriate transparent and stringent measures, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) was quoted by the media saying, “We don’t recognize and are not bound by what the US is doing and is inspecting. The FDA may regulate its country, but it can’t regulate India on how India has to behave or how to deliver.”
The DCGI made this comment as the then US-FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg was wrapping up her a weeklong maiden trip to India, in the wake of several ‘Import Bans’ arising out of repeated cGMP violations by some large domestic generic drug manufacturers. Whereas, Hamburg reiterated the need for the domestic drug manufacturers conform to the USFDA quality standards ensuring health and safety for American patients, the DCGI’s above comment appears rather arrogant, out of tune, and was avoidable, to say the least. Instead, some serious corrective regulatory measures should have followed.
On the above comments of the DCGI, the American Enterprise Institute reportedly reacted by saying, “Indian drug regulator is seen as corrupt and colliding with pharma companies…”.
Smaller countries initiated similar action:
It now appears that this situation is going from bad to worse and malady is much deeper. Smaller countries, such as Vietnam, have recently banned products of a sizable number of domestic pharma exporters.
On September 5, 2016, a leading business daily of India reported: “Close on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam to strengthen bilateral ties, including defense, security and trade, the ministry of commerce and industries is planning to set up a committee, along with the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), to inspect Indian pharmaceutical companies which have been banned from Vietnam for exporting sub-standard drugs.”
In 2014, the Drug Regulatory Authority of Vietnam ‘red-listed’ about 50 pharma companies for alleged regulatory non-compliance in their manufacturing practices. The names included, some big names of Indian pharma industry.
Overall pharma market size of Vietnam is estimated over US$ 2 billion, and expected to grow to US$ 8 billion by 2020. A significant chunk of Vietnam’s pharmaceutical market comprises of generic drugs, where India used to be a major exporter. In the recent years, however, Indian pharmaceutical product exports to Vietnamese market have dipped considerably, reflecting the effects of the ban, with exports declining by 12 percent to US$ 146 million in 2015-16 from US$ 165 million in the previous fiscal year, the report said.
It was envisaged, especially after the Prime Minister’s visit to Vietnam, this situation will improve notably. However, just as what happened with the USFDA on related issues, there has been no change in the overall situation in this case, either.
Further, on November 23, 2016, yet another Indian Business news daily reported that 39 Indian drug companies have been blacklisted by Vietnam for quality standard violations, along with some others in Bangladesh and South Korea. The Vietnamese regulator has listed the names of all blacklisted companies on its website, without specifying in detail the exact reason behind the bans. The Indian products include, antibiotics and anti-rabies vaccine, among others. The latter was also reportedly banned by the World Health Organization (WHO), in January 2016.
What is more intriguing, despite the Union Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Commerce and Industries of India being aware of it, the issue seems to have drifted beyond reasonable control of the Indian regulators.
Some local companies still not acting:
On Feb 24, 2016, the US and the EU drug regulators reportedly called upon India’s pharmaceutical sector to step up efforts to improve manufacturing standards, and ensure the reliability of data, if it wishes to maintain its dominance in the generic drug industry. In the report, the director of the office of surveillance at the USFDA – Russell Wesdyk was quoted saying, “some Indian companies are still not taking enough steps to identify risks and failures at their firms.”
“Data integrity really sounds-off alarm bells for us. If you see data integrity on the surface, there is likely a lot going on underneath,” the foreign drug regulators reportedly commented.
These comments are profound, especially considering that India supplies about 33 percent of medicines sold in the United States, and nearly a quarter sold in the UK. Similar Indian drug quality related issues are now being raised by even smaller countries.
How safe are drugs for domestic consumption?
Many reasons may be attributed to quality concerns on Indian generics in the United States. Nonetheless, another question that surfaces alongside, if cGMP violations can take place for drug exports, despite rigorous compliance checks by the foreign drug regulators, what could possibly happen when the same system is so tardy in India? Are we consuming safe and effective drugs, whenever required, even within the country?
No one seems to have the right answer to this question, be because of various reasons. One such reason, out of various others, could well be how robust is data quality generated by the contract manufacturing companies? These are the core quality related issues, and can’t just be wished away, under any pretext.
On November 12, 2013, the DCGI was quoted saying that the investigative team of the drug regulator concluded that all the data submitted by Puducherry-based contract drug manufacturer ‘GuruFcure’, while seeking approval for manufacturing seven fixed dose combination drugs, are ‘fabricated’ and not ‘authentic’.
‘GuruFcure’, which started operations in 2007, and calls itself “one of the leading pharmaceutical formulation manufacturers in India”, reportedly used to manufacture drugs for some leading pharma MNC and Indian companies, such as: Abbott, Alkem, Glenmark, Wockhardt, Unichem, Intas Pharma, among others.
Though, as per the above media report, Wockhardt and Glenmark said that they were no longer associated with ‘GuruFcure’ at that time, the fact remains, they did market drugs produced by this contract manufacture in the past, and the patients consumed those drugs against doctors’ prescriptions. The saga continues unabated, even today.
On November 28, 2016, a major national English daily reported with a video clip that, following a crackdown since March this year, the drug regulators of seven states have alleged that 27 medicines, sold by 18 major drug companies in India, including Abbott, GSK, Sanofi, Sun Pharma, Cipla, Torrent, Alkem, Emcure and Glenmark Pharma, are of substandard quality, citing grounds such as false labelling, wrong quantity of ingredients, discoloration, moisture formation, failing dissolution test and failing disintegration test. Such allegations, though supported by laboratory test results, needs to brought to their logical conclusion. This is mainly because, media reports of this nature fuel lurking apprehension on the overall drug quality standards in India, leading to serious compromise with patients’ health and safety.
Against this rather gloomy backdrop, a ray of hope comes from a report that CDSCO has started training Indian drug manufacturers in good manufacturing practices, as it tries to address concerns of the USFDA, and other drug regulators, effectively.
Quoting the DCGI, who has now apparently resolved to put together proper practices and regulation in place for the pharma industry, the report says that CDSCO has hired 500 personnel, and is expected to further train employees of other units, to ensure that high quality medicines are manufactured in the country.
These officials will visit drug manufacturing hubs of the country over the next three to four years and train employees in producing quality medicines, following proper procedures and maintaining records. I hope, this will include contract manufacturers too. The question would remain: What happens when these regulatory lapses do not take place out of ignorance or lack of experience or expertise, but are purely intentional to cut corners?
Alleged dubious quality of many drugs manufactured in India is a critical issue, both within the country and with several foreign drug regulators, such as US-FDA, EMA and MHRA, among others. It affects all those who consume such drugs.
Today, even smaller countries are questioning Indian drug quality to protect their patients’ health interest. Thus, everything, when clubbed together, sends a strong signal to the Indian drug regulator to come out of its denial mode, walk the talk, and act decisively to safeguard the interest of Indian patients too.
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.