FDA ‘Import Bans’: Valuing Drug Supply Chain Security for Patients’ Safety

To strengthen patients’ health and safety requirements, there is a growing need to first work out and then maintain a robust Drug Supply Chain Security (DSCS) mechanism by the pharmaceutical product manufacturers located anywhere in the world.

It is, therefore, often believed that the broader objective of cGMP encompasses DSCS for the same reason.

Over a period of time DSCS has assumed enormous complexity, as it often extends beyond the geographical territory of a country, spanning across a large number of vendors and vendors’ vendors of different kinds.

A robust DSCS, besides many others, would be able to address effectively, including sourcing of finished goods from third party manufacturers, the following:

  • Health and safety concerns of patients
  • Fraudulent activities leading to drug counterfeiting
  • Stringent global regulatory scrutiny
  • Check on sourcing of unapproved or substandard material

Most common threats to DSCS:

Counterfeit goods are most common threats to DSCS mechanism of any company. According to a report of the World Health Organization (WHO) on the types of counterfeits and their magnitude, such products can be grouped into six categories:

  • Products without active ingredients: 32.1 percent
  • Products with incorrect quantities of active ingredients: 20 percent
  • Products with wrong ingredients: 21.4 percent
  • Products with correct quantities of active ingredients but with fake packaging: 15.6 percent
  • Copies of an original product: 1 percent
  • Products with high levels of impurities and contaminants: 8.5 percent.

Globalization enhances the need of DSCS:

In today’s globalized business environment, the dual need to reducing costs significantly and in tandem minimizing the risks associated with the procurement activities of the business, have compelled many pharma companies to extend their ‘Supply Chain’ related activities spreading across different parts of the globe, instead of just confining to the local space.

At the same time, a new trend is evolving with the emergence of world class outsourcing service providers in the Contract Research And Manufacturing Services (CRAMS) space, especially from the countries like India and China.

Though cost arbitrage both in India and China is a key-motivating factor, the outsourcing services encompass integrated value propositions of high order for the overseas customers, such as, desired quality including cGMP, speed in delivery process and suppliers’ integrity together with overall reliability of end products and services. Nothing in this value chain is mutually exclusive and would be left to chance. More importantly, DSCS  also must go through a set of complex algorithms striking a right balance between all agreed parameters.

Examples of serious DSCS security violations:

Following are a few at random examples of serious DSCS violations globally, at various times in the past:

  • In 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died after ingesting Extra-Strength Tylenol laced with potassium cyanide.
  • In 2007, over 300 people died in Panama of Central America after consuming a cough medication containing diethylene glycol, which was labeled as glycerin. The adulterant diethylene glycol was sourced from China and was relabeled as glycerin by a middleman in Spain, as reported by the media.
  • In March 2008, prompted by around 81 drug related deaths in the United States, the US-FDA announced a large scale recall of Heparin injection, a well-known blood thinner from Baxter Healthcare, suspecting contamination of a raw material sourced from China. Standard technology used by Baxter could not detect the contaminant, which the regulator considered as a deliberate adulteration. The contaminant was eventually identified as an over sulfated derivative of chondroitin sulfate, which costs a fraction of original heparin derivative.

The ‘Heparin tragedy’ raised, possibly for the first time, the need of working out an algorithm to put in place a robust system for DSCS, as stated above. This need has now become more critical as many pharmaceutical players, including those in India, are increasingly outsourcing the API, other ingredients and almost entire logistics from third parties.

The front-runner:

USFDA is globally recognized as the most efficient in this area having a sharp focus on patients’ health and safety interest. However, even a front-runner like this has some manpower related issues to make its global vigilance system almost watertight.  due to In this context, ‘The New York Times’ dated August 15, 2011 reported, despite the fact that US now imports more than 80 percent of APIs and 40 percent of finished drugs mainly from India, China and elsewhere, the agency conducts far fewer foreign inspections as compared to domestic inspections.

The US FDA Commissioner was quoted saying, “Supply chains for many generic drugs often contain dozens of middlemen and are highly susceptible to being infiltrated by falsified drugs.”

In another conference the FDA Commissioner said, “I think people have no idea in this country and around the world about the vulnerability of things that we count on every day and that we have a system that has big gaps in our protective mechanisms.”

Import bans of Indian drugs are related to DSCS:

In India, all may not be fully aware of intense health and safety concerns, as stated above, of the US drug regulator, when reports of repeated ‘import bans’ shake the domestic industry hard. Many even would painstakingly try to invent ‘other reasons’ behind such shameful ‘bans’, which are totally prompted by breach in DSCS going against patients’ interest of the importing country.

Stringent regulatory inspections of Indian manufacturing plants by the US-FDA and UK-MHRA, as reported by the media with great concerns are, therefore, for the same reasons.

The latest in this saga is the Toansa manufacturing facility of Ranbaxy, where USFDA reportedly detected, among others, presence of flies in sample storage room, un-calibrated instruments in its laboratory and non-adherence to sample analysis procedure, prompting yet another ‘import ban’ of drugs made at this facility by the drug regulator of the United States.

Is DSCS in place for all drugs manufactured and consumed in India?

The question therefore floats at the top mind, if for breach of DSCS the drugs manufactured in all those Indian pharma plants, that have faced ‘import bans’ from the US and UK, are unsafe for patients in those countries, how come the medicines manufactured in the same plants for domestic consumption are accepted as safe for the patients in India by the DCGI?

However, the good news is that the DCGI has, at last, taken cognizance of the unfortunate regulatory developments in India and is reportedly planning to initiate a system of sudden inspections of manufacturing facilities of all pharmaceutical players, both domestic and MNCs and would take stringent action against any non-compliance to standards. Let us hope that this is not just a knee-jerk reaction of the Indian drug regulator coming under intense pressure from all corners, the good intent would get translated into reality sooner.

Brinkmanship has failed:

That said, even after witnessing how clumsily the concerned Indian pharma players had prepared themselves for inspections by the overseas drug regulators, many other manufacturers still today continue to take the priority need of DSCS of the importing countries for granted  up until critical situations arise, such as, drug import ban orders by the overseas regulators. The mindset of ‘managing things on the stage’ has not worked. The brinkmanship has miserably failed, repeatedly in so many occasions.

Interestingly, global pharma majors, by and large, have recognized this area as a center piece of their procurement and manufacturing operations and are continuously honing their skills in this domain to avoid any unpleasant surprises on product quality and safety issues leading to loss in business, besides of course quantum damage in reputation and goodwill of the affected companies.


Strategic prioritization to maintain DSCS is a relatively a new focus area, which prompts the need to continuously nurturing material suppliers of high reliability and simultaneously explore possibilities of application of newer technologies primarily to avoid any breach in the entire supply chain, right from procurement, manufacturing to end products logistics support.

The process of ensuring a robust DSCS would undoubtedly add to overall cost of operation, especially when the industry is facing a growth challenge in the large developed markets of the world with much higher profit potential.

However, not mitigating the risk of breach in DSCS, could invite a nightmare of unsustainability in the business operations at any given point of time, as has been happening with some pharma majors in India, such as, Ranbaxy and Wockhardt.

Thus, weighing pros and cons, even if this integrated process adds to the cost of business, the option of not going for DSCS system would be foolhardy. At the same time, other operational measures like, improving order fill rate, more efficient inventory management and better buying, could help negating the adverse cost impact significantly.

That said, the bottom-line is: FDA ‘import bans’ are critical manifestations of not valuing, adequately enough,the DSCS for health and safety of patients, not just of the US and UK, but of our homeland 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.



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