In March 2014, the largest pharma player of India by market capitalization, Sun Pharma, became the latest of the large Indian pharma exporters facing the US-FDA ‘Import Ban’ for drugs manufactured at its Gujarat-based plant. This news came as a shocking surprise to many, including the stock market, as the home grown company has now attained an international stature being governed by a professional management team and steered by a Board that is chaired by a well-regarded non-Indian with decades of experience in the global pharmaceutical industry.
Just before that in January 2014, being slapped with the US-FDA drug ‘Import Ban’ of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) manufactured in its Toansa Plant of Punjab, the pharmaceutical business of Ranbaxy in the United States, with the products manufactured in its approved manufacturing facilities in India, came to a screeching halt.
It is worth noting that similar ‘Import Bans’ are already in place for the same company’s Dewas, Paonta Sahib, and Mohali production facilities. The combined impact of these bans now makes Ohm Laboratories plant of Ranbaxy, located in New Jersey, its sole generic drug manufacturing facility for the US market.
Considering that the US sales of Ranbaxy reportedly used to be around 57 percent of its total global turnover even in 2012, these import bans are undoubtedly a huge blow to the company, both financially as well as in terms of its business reputation.
Thus, the top priority of Ranbaxy under this situation is effectively addressing all the issues as raised by the US-FDA, especially in the area of documentation, as in the buyers’ market sellers cannot be the choosers.
A ‘Double Whammy’:
Meanwhile, prompted by theses ‘Import Bans’ on product quality ground and adding further woes to the company, the Supreme Court of India on March 15, 2014 reportedly issued notices to both the Central Government and Ranbaxy on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking not just cancellation of the manufacturing licenses of the company, but also a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the allegation of supplying adulterated drugs in the country.
Thus, it is a double whammy for Ranbaxy. The company would now require convincing the top court of the country that it manufactures and sells quality medicines for consumption of the patients in India.
However, Ranbaxy reportedly insisted that the drugs sold by it in the Indian market are safe and effective and that the company complies with all regulations of the country.
Could the situation now get even murkier?
During the process of judicial scrutiny, if the Supreme Court gets convinced with the above reply of Ranbaxy on this issue, the question that could possibly emerge is, how come the same company produces high quality drugs for the patients in India and allegedly substandard quality drugs for the patients of the United States? This could make the subject more complicated, if not murkier, internationally.
Two intriguing coincidences:
In the midst of all these, while connecting various similar looking and important dots, emerged during the last few years, a couple of clear coincidences comes to the fore, as follows:
1. Is the drug quality issue in India for exports limited only to US-FDA?
This brings us to the first interesting coincidence of drug ‘Import Bans’, involving large Indian drug exporters, coming mostly, if not only, from the US-FDA, although there are so many other drug importing countries, including rest of the developed world.
Moreover, none of the Indian domestic companies had ever faced similar number of USFDA ‘Import Bans’ in the past, though they have been exporting to the United States from their FDA approved and inspected plants since quite a while. Therefore, it is worth figuring out why has it started happening now, that too repeatedly, and involving some of the largest global generic drug manufacturers from India.
Ranbaxy too is a large global player for generic pharmaceutical products. Besides India and the United States, the company markets its products both in East and West Europe, Latin America, Africa, Middle East, South Asia, South-East Asia and Asia-Pacific regions. Interestingly, though its saga related to US-FDA cGMP conformance in the four plants, culminating into drug ‘Import Bans’ in the United States, commenced as early as 2008, the company does not seem to have any issue with any other drug regulator anywhere in the world, not just yet.
According to the media report, UK and Australian drug regulators had commented that they are assessing the impact of the US action on Ranbaxy products sold in their countries. However, as on date Ranbaxy’s drug export to all those countries continue to remain as normal as before.
If over a period of time, it is proved that other foreign drug regulators do not have any similar quality related issues with Ranbaxy manufactured products, a serious joint evaluation of the entire chain of events related to Ranbaxy and others by the global regulatory experts would perhaps be warranted to provide a lasting solution on the subject.
2. Missed opportunities for ‘first to launch’ generic versions of blockbuster drugs:
The second coincidence is related to a series of missed opportunities, especially for Ranbaxy, related to ‘first to launch’ generic versions of several patent expired blockbuster drugs in the United States.
When the emerging dots associated with such lost opportunities for drugs like, Lipitor (Pfizer), Diovan (Novartis) and Nexium (AstraZeneca) are connected, a clear pattern emerges favoring Big Pharma and obviously adversely affecting companies like Ranbaxy.
Saga started with uncertainty over Lipitor generic Launch:
Like many other large Indian players, ‘first to launch’ strategy with new generic drugs has been the key focus of Ranbaxy since long, much before its serious trouble with the US-FDA begun in 2008. ‘Import Bans’ on two of its manufacturing facilities by the US regulator in that year created huge uncertainty in its launch of a generic version of Pfizer’s anti-lipid blockbuster drug Lipitor in 2011. On time launch of a generic version of Lipitor was estimated to have generated a turnover of around US $ 600 million for Ranbaxy in the first six months.
Despite its neck deep trouble with the US-FDA at that time, Ranbaxy ultimately did manage to launch generic Lipitor, after partnering with Teva Pharmaceutical of Israel.
The story continued with indefinite delay of Diovan generic launch:
Lipitor story was just the beginning of Ranbaxy’s trouble of not being able to translate its ‘first to launch’ advantage of patent-expired blockbuster drugs into commercial success, thus allowing the Big Pharma constituents to enjoy the market monopoly with their respective blockbuster drugs even after patent expiry.
Despite Ranbaxy holding the exclusive rights to market the first generic valsartan (Diovan of Novartis and Actos of Takeda) for 180 days, much to its dismay, even after valsartan patent expiry in September 2012, a generic version of the blockbuster antihypertensive is yet to see the light of the day. However, Mylan Inc. has, now launched a generic combination formulation of valsartan with hydrochlorothiazide.
US-FDA drug ‘Import Ban’ from the concerned manufacturing facility of Ranbaxy gave rise to this hurdle favoring the Big Pharma, as discussed above.
As a result, Novartis in July 2013 reportedly raised its guidance announcing that the company now expects full-year sales to grow at a low single-digit rate, where it had earlier predicted net sales to turn up flat. It also guided for core earnings to decline in the low single digits, revising guidance for a mid-single-digit drop.
Would it also delay the launch Nexium generic?
Ranbaxy had earlier created for itself yet another opportunity to become the first to launch a generic version of the blockbuster anti-peptic ulcerant drug of AstraZeneca – Nexium in the United States, as the drug goes off patent on May 27, 2014. However, due to another recent US-FDA import ban from the concerned plant of Ranbaxy, it now seems to be a distant reality.
That said, it has now been reported that Ranbaxy is in talks with at least two companies on sourcing ingredients for the generic version of Nexium to be able to launch its generic formulations in the United States immediately after the patent expiry.
In this context, any delay in the launch of generic Nexium, which incidentally is the second-biggest seller of AstraZeneca, would have a big impact on the company’s profit.
With the global sales of Nexium at US$ 3.87 billion and US sales at US$ 2.12 billion in 2013, retaining its monopoly status in the all-important US market beyond the end of May would not only limit a forecast decline in AstraZeneca’s 2014 earnings, but would also protect bonuses for top management of the British pharma giant, the above report says.
No Machiavellian Hypothesis:
By highlighting these coincidences, I have no intention to even attempting to postulate something like a ‘Machiavellian Hypothesis’. I just want to establish that intriguing coincidences do exist whatever may be the reasons.
Probably an in-depth study by independent experts in this field would be able to ferret out the real reasons behind these coincidences, including, why are the cGMP issues repeatedly arising only with the US-FDA?
Be that as it may, delayed generic launches of Nexium (AstraZeneca) with US sales of US$ 2.12 billion, together with the same for Actos (Takeda) and Diovan (Novartis) recording a combined sales for US$ 8.55 billion, have indeed created almost a wind-fall gain for the respective ‘Big Pharma’ constituents and consequent huge losses for Ranbaxy. The first-to-file bonus on Actos alone was estimated to be more than US$ 200 million.
Though the US-FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has reportedly clarified that the United States is ‘not targeting’ Indian pharma companies but just following a strict quality control regime for all products being imported into America, the following critical questions still float at the top of mind:
- Are all these missed opportunities of Ranbaxy, which favored Big Pharma immensely, just sheer coincidences of clash in timings between USFDA ‘Import Bans’ from four of its manufacturing facilities and the respective launch dates in the United States for the first generic versions of the three blockbuster drugs?
- When Indian generic drug manufacturers continue to export across the world without any problem thus far, why is a series of unprecedented ‘Import Bans’ on quality grounds now coming from the US-FDA in a quick succession decimating the image of Indian generic drug manufacturers?
At the end of the narrative, some wise men could well say that I am trying to connect the dots that do not exist at all. These are all imaginary or at best, sheer coincidences. It could well be just that, who knows? But…
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.