In a Quandary of Drug Quality, Price Control, Innovation and Patient Interest in India

The patients in India have every reason to apprehend, whether the prescription drugs that they consume are efficacious, safe and conform to the government approved prices, alongside another important question: Do they affordable access to the fruits of innovation?

The regulator responsible for drug quality in India is responsible for ensuring the first two, and the drug price regulator of the country ensures the remaining two.

Apparently, both these esteemed government bodies, are sure that they are doing the best jobs in their respective areas. Moreover, in these days of social media blitzkrieg, it won’t be uncommon to witness some of them, creating hype on some issues that many feel is better avoided, and at times even contradictory in nature.

Amid this seemingly chaotic continuity of the same or a bit deteriorating scenario, patients are often caught in an unenviable footing.

In this article, I shall discuss on these concerns afresh, quoting a few recent examples. My objective is to encourage all concerned to move away from incessant hype creation by accepting the reality, as the patients feel. This is necessary, because anyone, including the regulators can fall victim of such unfettered developments, at any point of time.

Thus, it may be appropriate for all to jettison any residual arrogance or a faint shade of narcissism, before putting the nose to the grindstone to resolve these pressing issues decisively, for patients’ sake.

Are we consuming effective and safe medicines?

I raised this question first in an article titled, “Are We Taking Safe and Effective Medicines?” published in this blog on November 13, 2013. That deliberation was primarily based on US-FDA ‘import bans’ from various drug manufacturing facilities in India, involving even the top Indian pharma players. Based on their own quality and safety audits, the US regulator had concluded that drugs produced in those factories are not safe for consumption by the patients in America.

This apprehension has now almost reached its crescendo, when on February 24, 2017, probably for the first time ever, US-FDA publicly voiced its apprehension about the efficacy of medicines being sold and consumed by patients in India.  The observation came from the India director of the US-FDA in an annual conference of a large pharma trade association of some of the top domestic pharma companies. While commenting, “I do not think any one of us wants to take such drugs which lack efficacy”, the official reportedly revealed, he occasionally gets samples sent from the US embassy health unit in Delhi, and complaints are usually about the medicines not giving the desired results.

It is noteworthy, as earlier, rubbishing claims levelled by media expressing growing concern among overseas regulators over the quality of Indian made drugs, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) had reportedly strongly reiterated that there have been no lapse or compromise on quality parameters of the drugs manufactured throughout the country, as the efficacy of the drugs and safety of the patients have always remained the top priority of DCGI.

Yet another news article of August 22, 2016 reported that after a year-long survey involving Government, civil society and pharmacy professionals, and testing nearly 50,000 drug samples across the country during this period, the Ministry of health of India found that medicines produced in India are safe and effective. This study was kicked off in the wake of rising concerns that several medicines made in the country posed risks to patients, the report highlighted.

Should ‘Self-certification’ by industry prevail?

Intriguingly, when questions on drug quality manufactured in India, are regularly being raised by other equally responsible drug authorities, we find ‘self-certification’, in this regard, coming from all those who are expected to resolve this issue beyond an iota of doubt, always prevails.

Apparently, not just the drug regulator and the Union Ministry of Health are in a sustained denial mode, many large pharma companies also seem to be in the same mode. On March 01, 2017, the media reported, “Close on the heels of US FDA India office raising concerns over the quality of medicines marketed in India, pharma leaders came together to defend the quality of their products. There is no question of compromising quality of Indian products meant for domestic market and export, they pointed out.” This rebuttal was expected. Nevertheless, the apprehension lingers: Should such self-certification by pharma players prevail?

That said, one may try to justify this quandary by saying that effectively regulating over 20,000 domestic pharmaceutical companies, including third party and loan license manufacturers, poses a serious challenge to the DCGI and the State Drug Controllers. However, the moot point is, who has been encouraging such over-proliferation of drug manufacturing facilities over a long period of time, in any case? In that sense, whose prime responsibility is it to ensure that drugs consumed by patients in India are efficacious and safe?

The answer to these vexing questions continues to remain unanswered.

Did patients benefit from drug price control orders?

Let me first draw a brief sketch on the global perspective of price increases in generic drugs. It appears that in all those countries where there is no drug price control in place, the entire pharma industry is being adversely impacted by huge generic drug price inflation. This finding has been well captured in a study by Elsevier. It shows, between November 2013 and November 2014, out of its research sample of 4421 generic drug groups, there were price increases in 222 drug groups by 100 percent or more. In 17 drug groups price increases were taken even over 1000 percent, which include even tetracycline. With this trend sharply moving north, many patients, across the world, are struggling hard to find ways to survive in this situation. With this backdrop, I now get back to its India perspective.

I have read some media editorials questioning, just as the pharma industry, whether it is the right approach to make essential medicines affordable through drug price control in India? Nevertheless, there isn’t an iota of doubt in my mind that yes, it is, in the prevailing health care scenario of the country sans universal health care, with out of pocket expenses on medicines being the highest in the world and when market competition doesn’t bring down the price of medicines, for obvious reasons. My questions, on the contrary, will be, is drug price control being enforced in India the way it should? Are the patients getting commensurate benefits out of it? If not, why?

However, on the face of it, the answer to the question above “Did patients benefit from drug price control orders”, may appear to be an affirmative one. This is mainly because, on July 28, 2017, no less than the Union minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers, in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha reportedly conveyed that the Indian consumers have saved nearly Rs 5,000 crore due to the Government fixing the prices of essential medicines under the Drugs Price Control Order (DPCO) 2013.

The ground reality of drug price control:

Let me try to explore a bit in this area with some recent examples.

According to the data from India’s drug pricing watchdog – the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA), compliance to various Drug Price Control Orders (DPCO) is far from satisfactory. Outstanding dues for non-compliance to notified ceiling prices, including penalty, from scores of pharma companies, have now reportedly piled up over the past two decades exceeding Rs. 4,551 crore (around USD 700 million). Thus, the same question haunts: Has drug price control benefitted the patients in India, as was intended to?

The situation is no different, even with DPCO 2013. On February 23, 2017, NPPA notified the ‘Suspected cases of Noncompliance of Ceiling Price by Pharmaceutical Companies,’ of 634 drugs, along with a ‘Public Notice’ for the same. This listed included the products marketed by some leading pharma companies in India, such as, Cipla, Abbott India, Alkem Labs, AstraZeneca, Dr Reddys Lab and Cadila, among many others.

Yet another fresh allegation related to drug pricing has just come to light. Interestingly, it relates to an anti-diabetic drug that falls outside DPCO 2013. On March 01, 2017, a news articled reported, “India’s drug regulator will look into allegations that four leading pharmaceutical companies are colluding to set the price of anti-diabetic drug Vildagliptin, a move that may rattle the almost Rs. 10,000 Crore (around USD 1540 million) market in the country.” Vildagliptin is a proprietary drug of Novartis, which has licensed it to three other companies. All of them sell Vildagliptin in India under their own brand names. Abbott sells it as Zomelis, USV as Jalra and Emcure as Vysov. The combined sales of these brands stood at Rs. 822 Crore (around USD 125 million) last year, the report states.

Be that as it may, the bottom line, as many believe, continues to remain unchanged, as it has always been – the patients don’t derive intended benefits due to lackluster and apparently ineffective enforcement of the drug price control in India.

Another crucial player:

Besides the two important and powerful Government authorities – DCGI and NPPA, there is another very critical player in this game – the Indian drug industry. Without whole-hearted cooperation and result-oriented action by all the three players, in tandem, nothing can possibly change this agonizing status quo, in this area.

The industry too is in a denial mode:

Quite like the other two critical constituents, who always deny any serious allegation on their actions, not being good enough to fetch the intended benefits for the patients, the drug industry too doesn’t seem to be any different. It always appears to be in a pre-programmed denial mode against all such allegations, irrespective of whether these are on drug quality, price, or on frequent misuse of the term innovation. They always try to justify their action, playing the victim card, as it were, and expecting other stakeholders to believe that they are doing right, always.

Let me now explore each of these areas separately, basically from the pharma industry perspective:

Drug quality: Pharma players, just as the Indian drug regulator, do not seem to accept that many drugs in India do not provide desirable benefits to patients, as alleged even by the US-FDA after studying some test results, following complaints from their local establishments. Many of us, at an individual level, may also have experienced just the same, and nurture the same doubt on the efficacy and safety profile of some branded generics that we consume, but have no wherewithal to prove the same. Doctors just change the brands, when any patient comes with such complaints, as Pharmacovigilance has not taken-off in the country with full steam, just yet. Thus, both the government regulators and the industry are in sync with each other, on this issue.

Drug price control: In this specific area, unlike the issue of drug quality, the respective stands of the government and the industry are poles apart. The former believes that it is working well, and the latter says, it isn’t.

The industry, as I see it, wants to project an impression that drug price control is the root cause of all evils, including compromises on drug quality, and some drugs going out of the market. The industry further highlights that drug price control offers a crippling blow to innovation, as they can’t garner enough financial resources through increased drug prices. It is another matter that they can’t possibly claim, drug price control offers a telling blow on their profit, as despite price control pharma is one of the highest profit making industry in India and globally too.

What innovation means to patients:

Interestingly, both the domestic and multinational pharma players often use the term of innovation, mostly construed as a façade, as it were, in their different advocacy initiatives, and during media outreach, as well. For global players, it primarily means innovation of new products, which offers monopolistic marketing and pricing advantage. Whereas, for generic players, it is generally process innovation, and different generic or biosimilar product development.

This is fine, but why should patients pay high drug prices, only because pharma players want to spend more on innovation, either for a new drug or a new process? I reckon, almost none will be willing to pay just for the heck of it.

Commensurate incremental price for incremental value:

Many patients, on the other hand, will be willing to pay more for any commensurate incremental value that a drug or a process will offer for a speedy recovery from illness, or to live a better quality of life, or for a lesser net treatment cost. Thus, the price of any brand is considered by stakeholders as a function of the value that it promises to offer. Consequently, brand marketing is deemed a value delivery system. For medicines, this value must be easily perceptible, quantifiable and scientific research based. Accordingly, the outcome of any such innovation should convince the regulators, doctors, hospitals and ultimately the patients – what value delivery – path breaking or incremental, for which patients need to pay commensurate incremental prices.

Various ways of ensuring it:

There are several different ways of addressing it, even for branded generics in India. For example, when branded generics of the same drug or similar FDCs of different drugs, are marketed by different companies with a huge price difference, the pharma players should necessarily submit before appropriate authorities, prior to marketing approval, all data regarding incremental and quantifiable value offerings, especially for those branded generics falling at the top of the price band. This is necessary, as an increasing number of brands in the market of the same generic molecules or the same FDCs, may not necessarily lead to greater competition with any significant impact on price. I shall argue on this point below.

What happens, generally:

For any drug falling outside price control in India, branded generic drug makers, usually set prices based on whatever each of them considers the market will accept. This consideration is highly elastic in nature, varying from a very low to a very high price, for any specific molecule and its FDCs. As I said before, it has been well-established by now that competition doesn’t play any significant role to bring down the branded generic drug prices, unlike many other consumables in different industries.

Why market competition doesn’t work for medicines?

This is primarily because, the purchasing decision for medicines does not depend on individual patients, unlike many other consumables. This decision is taken by the doctors while writing prescriptions for them. It is widely alleged, all over the world, that many important doctors are heavily influenced by the drug companies, often through dubious and highly cost intensive means, to prescribe their respective brands or branded generics in the process of treatment of a wide variety of medical conditions. In this rat race of generation of more and more prescriptions, pharma companies require to have a deep pocket to achieve their financial goals. Thus, many brands attract high prices to generate more profit and keep moving this vicious circle. Value based brand differentiation for many leading branded generics or even me-too patented products, aren’t mostly robust enough to stand any scientific or peer scrutiny. Consequently, the prescription demand of a most branded generics or me-too patented products do not have any linear relationship with the nature of market completion, and therefore, on their prices. In this perspective, setting a price for a pharma brand doesn’t depend on quantifiable value offerings for patients, as someone said before, “It is not a science. It is a feel.”

In conclusion:

The overall concern spans across several important public health and safety related issues, which also involve general quality standards of medicines, the effectiveness of drug price control, the core intent of so frequent use of the term ‘innovation’ in various pharma advocacy initiatives, including media outreach.

In this scenario, is the pharma industry, together with the drug quality and pricing watchdogs, failing to fathom the grave residual impact of continuity of this situation? In my view, this specific assumption appears too simplistic, naïve, and unrealistic. Or else, could it be that they are actually in a quandary, not being able to decide what would be the most effective actionable blueprint to resolve these issues?

I reckon, this is high time now for all concerned to accept the reality, seriously introspect on these critical issues, opt for a dip-stick expert analysis to assess the real status, and then work out a time-bound action plan with assigned accountability on the ground.

Together they may wish to address the following queries, among several others:

  • Why are they still running on a treadmill, as it were, over the last four decades, to come nearer these issues for better understanding, without moving an inch on the ground, despite public outcry?
  • Are they really in a quandary?
  • Are these concerns not an outcome of basically governance related failures?
  • Why hypes are being created all around on significant savings over out of pocket expenses on medicines because of ‘good enforcement’ of DPCOs, when it doesn’t seem so?
  • What prompts all the key players to be in a consistent denial mode on dubious drug quality standards in India, when foreign drug regulators are pointing it out in public?
  • Isn’t the term ‘innovation’ being rampantly misused, more as a major tool for advocacy to gain free pricing advantage?
  • Shouldn’t ‘Que Sera, Sera’ days change now?

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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