‘Indian Drug Control World’s Weakest: Pharma Trade Bodies Working At Cross Purposes’

“In the entire world, I think our drug control system probably is the weakest today. It needs to be strengthened,” said the Secretary of the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) – V K Subburaj at an event in New-Delhi on April 19, 2016. 

In his speech, the Secretary also singled out the pharma industry associations for working in opposite directions, adding that “if we take one decision, it is appreciated by one but the other one criticizes us”.

This is indeed an irony. Such scathing comments from an important and a top Government official indeed stand out. This is primarily because, in the midst of the prevailing scenario, where a large section of the Government is saying ‘we are the best’ or ‘best among the worst’ or, at least, ‘fast improving’, a seemingly helpless key decision maker for the pharma industry was constrained to publicly say, what he had said, as above.

Nonetheless, public expressions, such as these, coming from a top Government official well-captures the sad and pathetic scenario of the systemic failure of pharma industry regulators to bring order in the midst of continuing chaos. Virtually free-for-all business practices, blatantly ignoring the patients’ health and safety interest in the country, continue to thrive in a self-created divisive environment.

Unsparing remarks in two critical areas:

As reported by the ‘Press Trust of India (PTI)’, the DoP Secretary, with his unsparing remarks, publicly expressed his anguish for the delay in taking remedial measures, at least in the two critical areas of the pharma industry in India, as follows:

  • Questionable quality of drugs
  • Questionable pharma marketing practices 

He also highlighted, how just not some Government Departments, but the pharma trade associations, which are formed and fully funded by the pharma players, both global and local, are working at cross-purposes to perpetuate the inordinate delay in setting a number of things right, to satisfy the healthcare needs of most patients.

I briefly dwelled on this critical conflict in my article in this blog of March 28, 2016 titled, “Ease of Doing Pharma Business in India: A Kaleidoscopic View

A. Questionable quality of drugs:

There wasn’t enough debate in the country on the questionable drug quality in India. It began when the US-FDA started banning imports of a number of medicines in the United States from several drug manufacturing facilities in India. These pharma plants are of all sizes and scales of operations – large, medium, small and micro.

Almost on a regular basis, we now get to know, both from the national and international media, one or the other pharma manufacturing facility in the country, has received the ‘warning letter’ from the US-FDA on its ‘import ban’.

Dual drug manufacturing quality standards?                                            

The spate of ‘Warning Letters’ from the US-FDA have brought to the fore the existence of two different quality standards of drug manufacturing in India:

  • High quality plants dedicated to exports in the well-regulated markets of the world, such as, the United States, following the US-FDA regulations.
  • Other plants, with not so stringent quality standards of the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), cater to the needs of the Indian population and other developing non-regulated markets. 

In this situation, when many Indian manufacturers are repeatedly faltering to meet the USFDA quality standards, the following two critical questions come up:

  • Are the US-FDA manufacturing requirements so stringent that requires a different compliance mindset, high-technology support, greater domain expertise and more financial resources to comply with, basically for protection of health and safety of the American patients?
  • If so, do the Indian and other patients from not so regulated markets of the world, also deserve to consume drugs conforming to the same quality standards and for the same reason? 

Answers to these questions are absolutely vital for all of us.

Pharma associations working at cross-purposes? 

Considering this from the patients’ perspective, there lies a huge scope for the pharma associations, though with different kind of primary business priorities, to help the Government unitedly in resolving this issue.

It appears from the deliberation of the DoP Secretary that the health ministry is already seized of the matter. The concerned departments are also apparently batting for quality, and trying to strengthen some specific capacity building areas, such as, increasing the number of inspectors and other drug control staff.

Reports also keep coming on the poor quality clinical trial data in India, including data fudging, as was recently detected by the foreign drug regulators. Intriguingly, nothing seems to be changing on the ground. In these areas too, the industry can unitedly try to protect the innocent patients from the wrongdoers, demonstrating enough credible and publicly visible real action.

From the anguish of the DoP Secretary on the critical quality related issue, it appears, there is a huge task cut out for the Indian drug regulators to ensure uniform and high drug quality standards for health and safety of all Indian patients’, just as their counterparts in America.

It is unfortunate to note from his observation that pharma industry associations are not visibly working in unison on many such issues in India.

B. The UCPMP:

The Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics of Harvard University, while deliberating on “The Pharmaceutical Industry, Institutional Corruption, and Public Health” dwelled on the legal, financial, and organizational arrangements within which the pharmaceutical industry operates. It said, this situation sometimes creates incentives for drug firms and their employees, that conflict with the development of knowledge, drug safety, the promotion of public health, and innovation. More importantly, they also make the public depend inappropriately on pharmaceutical firms to perform certain activities and this leads to institutional corruption.

Illustrating from Professor Marc Rodwin’s project, the article said pharma players provide substantial discretionary funding for important medical activities, such as, continuing medical education, medical research, medical journals, and professional medical societies, which can encourage unwanted and undesirable compromise and bias in favor of their interests.

The same sentiment was also well-captured in an editorial of the well-reputed international medical journal BMJ of June 25, 2014. It unambiguously articulated, “Patients everywhere are harmed when money is diverted to the doctors’ pockets and away from priority services. Yet this complex challenge is one that medical professionals have failed to deal with, either by choosing to enrich themselves, turning a blind eye, or considering it too difficult.”

The editorial underscored the point that success in tackling corruption in healthcare is possible, even if it is initially limited, as anti-corruption bodies in the United Kingdom and US have shown to a great extent. With this, BMJ planned to launch a campaign against ‘Corruption in Medicine’, with a focus on India.

The DoP initiative:

Initiating a step in this direction, on December 12, 2014, the DoP announced details of the ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’, which became effective across the country from January 1, 2015. The communique also said that the code would be voluntarily adopted and complied with by the pharma industry in India for a period of six months from the effective date, and its compliance would be reviewed thereafter on the basis of the inputs received.

Not a panacea:

It is worth noting, since the last three and a half decades, ‘Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices’, prepared by various global pharma trade associations and most of the large global pharma companies individually, have come into existence purported for strictest voluntary adherence. These are being relentlessly propagated by them and their trade associations, as panacea for all marketing malpractices in the drug industry. Squeaky clean ‘pharma marketing codes’ for voluntary practices can be seen well placed in the websites of almost all large global pharma players and their trade associations.

The concept of a pharma marketing code and its intent are both commendable. However, the key question that follows: are all those working in practice? If the answer is yes, why then mind boggling sums in billions of dollars are being paid as settlement fees by a large number of global pharma companies for alleged colossal marketing malpractices in different countries of the world?

Mandatory UCPMP:

As happens with any other voluntary pharma marketing code of a global drug company or their trade associations, however mighty they are, similar non-compliance was detected by the DoP with voluntary UCPMP.  This gross disregard on the code, apparently prompted the DoP making the UCPMP mandatory, with legal implications for non-compliance, which could possibly lead to revocation of marketing licenses. 

A move in this direction, obviously necessitated meaningful discussion of the DoP with all stakeholders, especially the pharma trade associations. According to the Secretary, the discussions got unduly protracted, crippling his decision making process to put the mandatory UCPMP in place, soon.

Divergent views of pharma associations?

Thus, it is now quite clear that one of the reasons for the delay in making the UCPMP mandatory is the divergent views of various pharma trade associations.

In the Secretary’s own words, “To take an example of uniform marketing code, we thought we could arrive at a common solution. But even after 7-8 meetings, we failed to come to a conclusion. It’s only now that we have arrived at a code.” 

However, the bottom-line is, as on date, we don’t know when would the mandatory UCPMP come into force in India.

Conclusion:

The reverberation of virtual helplessness in the recent utterances of the Secretary of the DoP, has naturally become a cause of great concern, especially for the patients. There is still no sign of early resolution of the critical issue of dubious quality, both in the drug manufacturing and clinical trials in India.

The concerned ministries would require to demonstrate unwavering will and unflagging zeal for good governance with accountability, to set things right, without any further delay. When US-FDA can, why can’t the DCGI succeed in doing so? The Government is expected to ensure that justice prevails in this area, for the patients’ sake, soon enough.

Similarly, wrong doings in pharma marketing practices also need to be addressed by the DoP, initially making the UCPMP mandatory having strong legal teeth, to start with, notwithstanding the fact that the trade associations mostly work at cross-purposes, in this area too.

As I hear from the grapevine, especially the MNC trade associations, both inside and outside the country, are trying hard to take, especially, the owners of the large Indian pharma companies on board, in several ways, basically to further their crusade on various self serving issues, such as dilution of Indian Patents Act.

That said, taking serious note of the observation of the DoP Secretary that the Indian drug control is the “weakest in the world”, together with the challenges that he is facing in containing pharma marketing malpractices, I hope, the honorable Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) may wish to intervene soon, in order to promptly contain these snowballing public health menace.

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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