Generic Drug Quality: Cacophony Masks An Important Note, Creates A Pariah

In the ongoing debate between branded-generics and generic drugs without brand names, the concern about drug quality is occupying the center stage, with the former generally being painted in white, and the later in black – with no shades of gray in-between. Interestingly, many large domestic companies manufacture and sell both these genres of generic medicines, and the marketing approval process of both is no different, in a relative yardstick. The degree of difficulty in testing their quality standards, across the country, is no different, either.

On February 25, 2017, even the USFDA, reportedly, raised concerns, for the first time, on the quality and efficacy of medicines, in general, being sold within India. The news report further highlighted: ‘Over the past two years, many domestic majors, including Sun Pharma, Dr. Reddy’s, Cipla and Zydus Cadila have faced regulatory ire over quality of medicines exported from here and sold in the US and other overseas markets’.

It is undeniable, if prescriptions in generic names are made mandatory, there could be direct job losses within the industry, just as loss of significant business clientele of many professional service providers for branded generic business, directly or indirectly. Its net impact needs to be factored-in too, while taking a final decision on this subject.

Lack of enough credible scientific data establishing superiority of branded-generics over their non-branded equivalents are also striking, so are few instances of doctors filing Pharmacovigilance reports with the DCGI on the inferior quality of non-branded generic drugs. Neither is the most competent body in this area – the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), has concurred with any such claims, so far. Without these, the whole debate based on seemingly over the top claims of superiority of branded generics as a class, is based no more than a matter of conjecture.

I discussed most of these points in one of my earlier articles published in this blog on April 24, 2017. Thus, in this article, I shall focus mostly on an important generic-drug-quality related amendment, very recently made in the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of India, which hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves. This finer note in the drug regulatory playbook, in fact, got nearly masked in the high-decibel cacophony of arguments and counterarguments on Prime Minister Modi’s recent hint on making prescriptions in generic drug names mandatory.

The core issue remains the same, both for non-branded and branded generics:

In the marketing approval process of any branded generic or a non-branded generic drug, Bioequivalence (BE) studies hold immense scientific importance. It ascertains whether the generic equivalent possesses similar efficacy and safety profile as the original molecule for interchangeability. Which is why, in most countries, including Europe and the United States, BE testing is mandatory for approval of any generic drug. Even the large buyers of these drugs, such as the World Health Organization, buy only those generics with proven BE.

Nonetheless, like many other nations, in India, as well, the marketing approval standards for all generic drugs, with or without a brand name, are exactly the same. However, this approval process gets alarmingly relaxed, for both these generic types, with the passage of time, which is the core issue.

New drug definition in India:

According to section 122-E of Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945 (D&C Rules) new drugs will include unapproved drugs, modified or new claims, such as, indications, dosage forms (including sustained release dosage form) and route of administration of already approved drugs and combination of two or more drugs. A new drug shall continue to be considered as new for a period of four years from the date of its first approval or its inclusion in the Indian Pharmacopoeia, whichever is earlier.

BE studies necessary only for ‘New Drugs’:

For all such new drugs and their Fixed Dose Combinations (FDC), including those which are not covered by a patent, if introduced for the first time in India, would necessarily require its applicant to submit the marketing approval documents well-supported by phase III clinical trial data, which includes BE studies against the original molecules. BE of a drug product is achieved if its extent and rate of absorption do not show statistically significant differences from those of the reference product when administered at the same molar dose.

After the 4-year period BE tests not necessary:

Interestingly, after the 4-year period, D&C rules allow subsequent manufacturers of similar drugs to generally rely on the data generated by other pharma companies to obtain marketing approvals for their drugs. In other words, after this 4-year period, manufacturers of branded or non-branded generic drugs are not required to establish comparable safety and efficacy of their formulations with the original molecule through BE and other studies. It is worth noting here, unlike India, BE tests are mandatory for approval of all generic drugs at any time, in most countries across the world.

How would a doctor select only those branded-generics with BE studies?

As there isn’t any easy way to know and identify, both by the doctors and also the patients, which branded or non-branded generics were introduced without BE studies, both these categories pose equal risks to patients – not just the cheaper generic drugs sans brand names.

Changes recommended:

This laxity in the regulatory framework in India did create a lot of uneasiness about the quality of branded and non-branded generic medicines approved by the drug regulators and sold in the country. Responding to this issue, Professor Ranjit Roy Chowdhury Committee Report recommended in July 2013 to make BE and bio­availability studies mandatory for all types of generic drugs, even after the 4-year period.

Cacophony masks an important note:

The good news is, on April 3, 2017, by a Gazette Notification, Indian Government enacted amendments to the Drug and Cosmetics Act (1940) requiring mandatory BE studies for marketing approval of all generic drugs even beyond the 4-year period of the ‘new drug’ definition. It says, “The applicant shall submit the result of bioequivalence study referred to in Schedule Y, along with the application for the grant of a license of the oral dosage form of drugs specified under category II and category IV of the biopharmaceutical classification system.”

Biopharmaceutics Classification System:

The Biopharmaceutics Classification System (BCS) is a scientific framework to differentiate the drug formulations based on their aqueous solubility and intestinal permeability, and mainly depends on two factors:

  • How well the drug dissolves in the stomach and intestinal fluids (drug solubility)
  • How readily the drug passes through the intestinal wall into the blood flow (drug permeability)

The BCS was introduced by Gordon L. Amidon in 1995 to classify drugs into the four categories based on these parameters, as follows:

  • Class I: High Solubility – High Permeability
  • Class II: Low Solubility – High Permeability
  • Class III: High Solubility – Low Permeability
  • Class IV: Low Solubility – Low Permeability

CDSCO still needs to find the right answer to a key question:

Interestingly, this so important note in the regulatory playbook of India got masked in the high-voltage cacophony on branded and non-branded-generics. However, CDSCO would still require finding out the right answer to a key question: how would a doctor or a patient possibly know on which branded and non-branded generic drugs BE tests were not carried out, before the above amendment came into force.

Reported data on substandard drugs in India:

Quoting CDSCO data, the September-October 2015 issue of the ‘Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism’ summarized that ‘during the years 2011-2014, the regional laboratories tested samples at 91 percent of the installed capacity, but their overall detection rate of sub-standard drugs were only 3.6 percent’. Many have expressed doubts about these numbers though, nevertheless, these are Government data, and don’t fall in the realm of any conjecture.

In any case, the Union Ministry of Health doesn’t seem to concur that the issue of substandard drugs in India, that includes both the branded and non-branded generics, has assumed a public health menace in India or even alarming.

No qualms on value added branding of generic drugs, but fix the loophole for all:

It is understandable, when generic drugs are branded for tangible value-added product differentiation even within the identical or the same drug molecules. There are no qualms on such branding per se, though it comes at a high cost.

Marketing approval requirements being the same for all branded and non-branded generic drugs with the same pitfalls of no mandatory BE-testing requirement after the 4-year period, branding should add commensurate tangible value. Otherwise, why should most patients pay a significantly extra amount for heavily promoted branded-generics? Is it to help the pharma companies fighting with each other to increase their respective pies of revenue and profit on an essential commodity? Instead, stakeholders should now focus on easy detection of all those branded and non-branded generic drug formulations that avoided mandatory BE studies, prior to April 3, 2017.

In conclusion:

Despite CDSCO’s statistical data on substandard drugs, the general concern regarding the efficacy and safety of medicines manufactured in India is often raised both inside the country, as well as by some well-respected overseas drug regulators. Curiously, when raising the same concern CDSCO banned hundreds of branded FDCs, as these drugs came to the market without carrying out required scientific tests due to some major lacunae in the regulatory system, there was a huge protest in the country raised by almost the same people, as business interests prevailed over patients’ health interest.

Interestingly, displaying a sharp contradiction in today’s cacophony, patients’ health interest has been put in the forefront to protect business interests, especially when the CDSCO has raised no such concern, whatsoever.

The reverberating claims on superior drug quality for branded-generics as a class, over their cheaper non-branded equivalents, with the former generally being painted in white, and the later in black – with no shades of gray in-between, as I said before, is based mostly on conjecture rather than enough hard facts. Thus, the question comes up, who is responsible for ensuring drug efficacy and safety for the patients in India – CDSCO or non-fact based claims being raised mostly by those who have a direct or indirect financial interest in branded-generic business?

Keeping this in perspective, it is indeed intriguing, why such an important regulatory step of April 3, 2017 requiring mandatory BE studies for marketing approval of all generic drugs, even after the 4-year period, is getting masked in the cacophony, mostly favoring the branded-generics as a category. However, it’s no-brainer to understand that this din would continue, projecting all generic drugs sans brand names – a pariah!

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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