“Make Global Pharma Responsible in Homeland for Objectionable Conduct in Clinical Trials Elsewhere”

In the context of his recent meeting with Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg of US-FDA, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) reportedly expressed his concern to ‘The Economic Times’ on the ‘objectionable conduct’ of global pharma in new drug trials in India, as follows:

“US and other global drug makers who conduct clinical trials at different locations across the globe need to be made responsible in their home country for their objectionable conduct in clinical trials elsewhere.”

He further added:

“While conducting trials, drug makers cannot discriminate on the basis of nationality, because patient safety is top priority for every regulator – US or India”

The above report also mentioned that there is already a law in place in the United States that makes companies accountable in their homeland, if they are found to be indulging in corruption overseas.

‘Uncontrolled clinical trials are causing havoc to human life’:

That is exactly what the Supreme Court of India observed last year in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Human Rights group ‘Swasthya Adhikar Manch (SAM)’.

At the same time, revoking the power of the ‘Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO)’ under the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), the apex court directed the Health Secretary of India to be personally responsible for all ‘Clinical Trials (CT)’ of new drugs conducted in the country in order to control the ‘menace’ of poorly regulated trials on a war-footing.

Earlier in May 2012, the Parliamentary Committee on Health and Family Welfare in its report on the CDSCO, also stated as follows:

“There is sufficient evidence on record to conclude that there is collusive nexus between drug manufacturers, some functionaries of CDSCO and some medical experts.”

Inaction on CT related deaths:

According to the Ministry of Health, between 2005 and 2012, around 475 new drugs were approved for CT, out of which only 17 obtained the regulatory approval for market launch. Though 57,303 patients were enrolled for CT, only 39,022 could complete the trials. During CT, 11,972 patients suffered Serious Adverse Events (SAE) and 2,644 died. 506 SAEs out of the total and 80 deaths had clearly established link to CTs. However, only 40 out of 80 trial related deaths had their respective families meagerly compensated.

An independent investigation:

Interestingly, an investigation  in 2011 by ‘The Independent’, a newspaper of global repute, also highlighted the recruitment of hundreds of tribal girls for a drug study without any parental consent.

Stringent regulatory action followed:

Following high voltage indictments, alleging wide spread malpractices, from all corners – the Civil Society, the Supreme Court and the Parliament, the Ministry of Health constituted an experts committee last year chaired by Professor Ranjit Roy Chaudhury. The committee, after due consultation with all stakeholders, submitted its report recommending a robust process for CTs in India. Besides many other, the experts committee also recommended that:

  • CTs can only be conducted at accredited centers.
  • The principal investigator of the trial, as well as the Ethics Committee of the institute, must also be accredited.
  • If a trial volunteer developed medical complications during a CT ‘the sponsor investigator’ will be responsible for providing medical treatment and care.

Further, in October 2013, the Supreme Court reportedly ordered the government to video record clinical trials of new drugs, making it even tougher for pharma MNCs and the CROs to avoid responsibility on informed consent of the participating volunteers, as required by the regulator.

Consequent industry uproar and recent Government response:

Following all these, as the ball game for CTs in India changed significantly, there were uproars from Big Pharma, the CROs and their lobbyists crying foul.

As the caustic comments and the directive of the Supreme Court of India triggered the regulatory changes in CT, the Union Ministry of Health did not have much elbowroom to loosen the rope. Consequently, the pharma industry and the CROs reportedly made some angry comments such as:

“The situation is becoming more and more difficult in India. Several programs have been stalled and we have also moved the trials offshore, to ensure the work on the development does not stop.”

In response to shrill voices against the stringent drug trial regime in India, Mr Keshav Desiraju, Secretary, Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, reportedly said recently:

“While it is not our intention to impose unrealistic barriers on industry, it is equally our intention not to take risks, which may compromise the safety of the subjects of clinical trials.”

During the same occasion, the Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad also remarked:

“The industry has complained that the regulations are too stringent, but there have also been complaints by parliamentarians, NGOs and others that they are too lax, which the Supreme Court had taken note of.”

He further said without any elaboration, “The Indian regulatory regime governing clinical trials needs to balance the interests of all stakeholders.”

Conclusion:

According to the Indian Society for Clinical Research (ISCR), pharma companies conduct around 60 percent of CTs and the rest 40 percent are outsourced to Contract Research Organizations (CROs) in India.

With the Supreme Court laying stringent guidelines and the regulatory crackdown on CTs, the number of new drug trials in India has reportedly come down by 50 percent. According to Frost & Sullivan, the Indian CT industry was worth US$ 450 million in 2010 -11. Currently, it is growing at 12 percent a year and is estimated to exceed the US$1 billion mark in 2016, with perhaps some hiccups in between due to recent tightening of the loose knots in this area.

Some experts reportedly argue that laxity of regulations and cost arbitrage were the key drivers for global players to come to India for CTs. Thus, there should not be any surprise that with the costs of drug trials going north, in tandem with stringent regulations in the country, some business may shift out of the country. As Mr. Desiraju epitomized in his interview succinctly, as quoted above, this shift would result in much increased costs for the respective companies, which his ministry would ‘regret greatly.’

That said, would the recent anguish of the DCGI, when he expressed “Make global pharma also responsible in their respective homelands for objectionable conduct in CTs elsewhere”, be also construed as a clear signal for shaping up, sooner?

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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