For Drug Safety Concern: “Whistleblower’s Intention Should Be Nationalistic”

In the recent weeks, three significant developments related to the Pharmaceutical Industry in India, have triggered rejuvenated concerns in the following critical areas: 

A. Overall drug safety standards in the country

B.  Self serving interest, rather than patients’ interest, dominate the prescribing decisions

C. Government assurance to American Trade Organization on ‘Compulsory License (CL)’ in India. 

These important issues fall under three key regulatory areas of India, as follows:

  • The Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO)
  • The Medical Council of India (MCI)
  • The Indian Patent Office

It is worth mentioning here that the Department Related Parliamentary Committee on Health and Family Welfare in its 59th Report, placed before both the houses of the Parliament on May 08, 2012, on the functioning of the Central Drug Standards Control Organization (CDSCO), begins with the following observations:

Medicines apart from their critical role in alleviating human suffering and saving lives have very sensitive and typical dimensions for a variety of reasons. They are the only commodity for which the consumers have neither a role to play nor are they able to make any informed choices except to buy and consume whatever is prescribed or dispensed to them, for the following reasons:

  • Drug regulators decide which medicines can be marketed
  • Pharmaceutical companies either produce or import drugs that they can profitably sell
  • Doctors decide which drugs and brands to prescribe
  • Consumers are totally dependent on and at the mercy of external entities to protect their interests.

Most importantly, all these concerns, if not properly clarified and appropriately addressed by the Government, soon enough, have the potential to create an adverse snowballing impact on the uniform access to affordable quality medicines, for all sections of the society in India.

Under this backdrop, I shall discuss in this article briefly, my perspective on each of these critical areas, as they are today, and not just the drug safety concerns.

The headline of this article is expected capture not only the prevailing mood of some key regulators, but also their inertia to address critical healthcare concerns and above all how the core public health related issues are getting lost, and the trivial ones are gradually occupying the center stage.

A. Overall drug quality and safety  standards in India:

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) suit, filed against the Drugs Consultative Committee and the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), was listed on the Supreme Court website for hearing on March 11, 2016.

The PIL has been filed by one Dinesh Thakur, requesting the Supreme Court to lay down guidelines by which manufacturers could be made liable for violating drug standards and also give a direction to the government to set up a ‘Drug Approvals Review Committee’ for examining criminality in the manner in which faulty drug approvals were granted. 

Many may recall that the same Dinesh Thakur worked for Ranbaxy from 2003 for two years, and is now the Chief Executive of MedAssure Global Compliance based in Florida, US. Thakur’s Company now advises pharma manufacturers on drug safety and quality standards.

As reported by Reuters, Thakur had earlier exposed how the erstwhile largest drug maker of India, Ranbaxy Laboratories, failed to conduct proper safety and quality tests on drugs and lied to regulators about its procedures. Consequently, USFDA fined Ranbaxy US$500 million for violating federal drug safety laws, and making false statements to the US regulator.

This news report further states: “Indian Parliamentary Committee, thereafter, reportedly demanded an investigation and the drugs regulator committed to one in 2013. Thakur received a statement from the health ministry last year, seen by Reuters, showing no inquiry had begun.”

On the last Friday, however, the Supreme Court of India refused to entertain this PIL of Dinesh Thakur, saying it does not have time to adjudicate academic issues, such as, need for guidelines to regulate quality of medicines.                                                  

The core issue:

The core issue here is not at all the above PIL, not at the very least. The issue is the much reported concern being expressed, over a period of time, regarding the drug safety standards in India. The reasons include breach of of data integrity, and gross violation of the ‘Good Manufacturing Practices’ standards. Such instances are being detected, almost regularly, by the foreign drug regulators, in several manufacturing facilities run by many large and small Indian drug producers.

It is well vindicated by the fact that around 45 Indian drug manufacturing plants have been banned by the USFDA alone, from shipping generic drugs to the United States, as these were considered unsafe for consumption of patients in the US. Some other foreign regulators too had taken similar action, citing similar reasons. The USFDA website specifies the details of gross violations made in each of these cases.

Ironically, all such facilities can manufacture and sell their drugs in India, as they conform to the quality requirements of the Indian drug regulator. Consequently, the Indian patients consume even those medicines, which are considered unsafe by the USFDA for American patients, innocently, as and when prescribed by the doctors.

Arising out of these incidents, when asked about the drug safety standards in India, and the public health-safety, instead of giving credible and action oriented answers for public reassurance, some of the apparently brazen replies of the DCGI are quite stunning for many stakeholders, both within and outside the shores of India.

I would now quote below just a few of those replies, just as examples. 

“…Whistleblower’s Intentions Should Be Nationalistic” -  DCGI:

According to Reuters, it has received the following response from the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), on the above PIL related to the drug safety standards in India:

We welcome whistleblowers, we have got great respect, but their intentions should be genuine, should be nationalistic… I don’t have any comment on this guy.”

Thus, many industry watchers feel that in a situation like this, the honorable Supreme Court of India would possibly require to intervene, just as what it did on alleged ‘Clinical Trial’ malpractices in the country or for drug price control, solely for public health interest.

The same attitude continues:

Such brazen response of the Central Drug Regulator, and that too on a serious subject, is indeed bizarre. It becomes increasingly intriguing, as the same attitude continues without any perceptible meaningful intervention from the Ministry of Health.

For example, on February 22, 2014, in the midst of a more intense scenario on a similar issue, instead of taking transparent and stringent measures, the DCGI was quoted by the media commenting:

“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.”

On February 26, 2014, presumably reacting to the above remarks of the DCGI, the American Enterprise Institute reportedly commented, “Indian drug regulator is seen as corrupt and colliding with pharma companies…”

Such apparently irresponsible and loose comments keep continuing, despite the 2012 report of the Parliamentary Committee of India alleging collusion between some pharmaceutical companies and officials of the CDSCO, which oversees the licensing, marketing and trials of new drugs. The report also commented that the agency is both chronically under-staffed and under-qualified.

Some possible remedial measures:

As the saying goes, “better late than never”, considering all these continuing developments, it is about time to reconsider some of the key recommendations of Dr. R. A. Mashelkar Committee on a similar subject and make amendments in the relevant Act accordingly, soon, to facilitate creation of a robust with high accountability ‘Central Drugs Authority (CDA)’. It would introduce a centralized licensing system for drug manufacturing, along with stringent drug safety standards; besides, sale, export and distribution of drugs. Perhaps, the draft bill on CDA is now lying in the heap of archival documents with the change in Government.

Why does India need CDA?

I believe, the formation of a robust CDA with high accountability, besides meeting with drug safety concerns, would provide the following significant benefits, both to the Industry and also to the Government:

  • Achieving uniform interpretation of the provisions of the Drugs & Cosmetics Act & Rules
  • Standardizing procedures and systems for drug control across the country
  • Enabling coordinated nationwide action against spurious and substandard drugs
  • Upholding uniform quality standards with respect to exports to foreign countries from anywhere in India
  • Implementing uniform enforcement action in case of banned and irrational drugs
  • Creating a Pan-Indian approach to drug control and administration
  • Evolving a single-window system for pharmaceutical manufacturing and research undertaken anywhere in the country.

B.  Self serving interest dominates the prescribing decision: 

That the self serving interest, rather than patient interest, dominate the prescribing decision, was vindicated by a key announcement of the Medical Council of India (MCI) last month.

In February 2016, apparently succumbing to continuous and powerful external pressure, the MCI announced an amendment in a clause of its Code of Ethics Regulations 2002, exempting doctors’ associations from the ambit of its ethics code, as applicable to doctors now across the country. Prior to the amendment, this section used to read as: “code of conduct for doctors and professional association of doctors in their relationship with pharmaceutical and allied health sector industry”.                      

In other words, it means that the professional associations of doctors will no longer come under the ambit of ethics regulations, legitimizing their indulgence in the identified unethical and corrupt practices, by receiving gifts in cash or kind from the pharma or healthcare industry.

A large section of the key stakeholders believes that this amendment would help creating an additional large space for the pharmaceutical marketing malpractices to thrive, unabated, at the cost of patients.

The latest report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on MCI:

In its 92nd Report, the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare titled, “The Functioning of Medical Council of India”, presented to the Rajya Sabha and laid on the Table of Lok Sabha on 8th March, 2016, the Committee observed on this amendment as “an action that is ethically impermissible for an individual doctor cannot become permissible, if a group of doctors carry out the same action in the name of an association.”

The report also noted the failure of MCI to instill respect for a professional code of ethics in the medical professionals and take disciplinary action against doctors found violating the code of Ethics, etc.

The Committee called for a complete restructuring of the MCI, since it believes that the Council has failed as a regulator of medical education and the profession. Casting serious aspersions on the functioning of the MCI, the house panel of the Parliament recommended that the Act under which the MCI was set up be scrapped and a new legislation be drafted “at the earliest”. 

The report castigated the health ministry:

The lawmakers castigated the Health Ministry in this report saying, “The committee also finds it intriguing that instead of intervening to thwart attempts of MCI at subverting the system, the ministry meekly surrendered to MCI.”

While summing up, the report states, “the Committee exhorts the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to implement the recommendations made by it in this report immediately and bring a new Comprehensive Bill in Parliament for this purpose at the earliest.”

How will it pan out now?

I reckon, it will now be immensely interesting now for all concerned to follow, how does the Government deal with this report to curb, among others, the strong interference of mighty and powerful vested interests to continue with the rampant pharma marketing malpractices, at the cost of patients in India.

C. Reported Government assurance on ‘Compulsory License’: 

On March 3, 2016, a media report quoted a submission by the US Chamber of Commerce to the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) as follows:

“While the Government of India has privately reassured (American) industry that it would not use compulsory licenses for commercial purposes, a public commitment to forgo using (this) would enhance legal certainty for innovative industries.”

This is an interesting development, primarily because there are a number of legal provisions for granting Compulsory Licenses (CL) in the Indian Patents Act 2005, including, when a drug is not widely available, extremely expensive and some other situation. In some these provisions, law should follow its own course and there is no legally permissible scope for Government’s administrative interference. Grant of CL for Nexavar of Bayar is one such example, and incidentally, that’s the sole CL that India has granted, so far, from the date of amendment of the country’s Patents Act in 2005. 

Thus, a blanket assurance of not invoking any of the provisions of the CL, as provided in the Indian Patents Act 2005, if true, would possibly require to pass through intense legal scrutiny, as that would adversely impact the access to key medicines in a necessary situation, for the public health interest.

So far, India has amply demonstrated to all, time and again, that the country does not grant a CL at the drop of a hat. That situation should continue to encourage and protect innovation. 

Nevertheless, “a written public commitment to forgo using the CL provisions for enhancing legal certainty for innovative industries,” as demanded by the US Chamber of Commerce, appears to be unreasonable, goes against the spirit of India’s Patents Act, and perhaps is not legally tenable either, unless the IP Act is amended accordingly in the Parliament.

Conclusion:

All these three areas, as discussed above, are critical from the healthcare perspective of the country.

Ironically, while deliberating on the subject, the capability, credibility and competence of some of the key regulators of the country, are being repeatedly questioned. These doubts emanate not just from Tom, Dick and Harry, but from an illustrious spectrum of constitutional institutions of India, spanning across the lawmaking Parliament, through its various committee reports, to the ultimate legal justice provider – the Supreme Court of India, through is various orders and key observations.

Regrettably, in this specific space, which is primarily related to healthcare, nothing seems to be changing on the ground, since long. The same tradition continues, without any visible sense of urgency, even from the Government.

On the contrary, we now read a new genre of comments, even from a key regulator, on the stakeholder concerns. For example, reacting to concern on drug safety standards, instead of articulating tangible actions to usher in a perceptible change, the chief action taker reportedly specified a totally judgmental and an outlandish requirement: “…Whistleblower’s intentions should be Nationalistic.”

Together with these incidents, the key public healthcare concerns of India too, are now apparently getting drowned in the high decibel ‘Nationalistic’ versus ‘Anti-nationalistic’ cacophony. But, the hope still lingers… for a change…for our nation’s sound health!

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.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.