“Make in India” Image of Pharma Needs An Early Makeover

“It is never too late to be what you might have been” - George Elliot

The chronicle of events since the last couple of years or so, related to ‘Make in India’ image of the local drug industry, have been instrumental to significantly slowing down the scorching pace of pharma exports growth of the country.

The Union Ministry of Commerce estimates that India’s export of drugs and pharmaceuticals may hardly touch US$16 billion in 2014-15, against US$14.84 billion of last financial year. This would mean that pharma exports growth would just be around 5 percent, against the projected number of 10 percent for the year. This is a significant concern, as pharma exports contribute around 40 percent to the total value turnover of the sector.

Despite this fact and couple of other important reasons, as I shall discuss below, about 45 percent of listed pharma stocks in India have reportedly more than doubled in the past one year. The current tail wind in the domestic pharma market could possibly have contributed to this aberration.

According to AIOCD Pharmasofttech AWACS, the last financial year started in April 2014 with 7.3 percent domestic retail pharma growth, which accelerated to 20.9 percent in March 2015, as the year ended.

High level of optimism and positive sentiments, thus generated in this process, possibly prompted many to ignore even some of the critical storm signals for the domestic pharma industry in its totality.

Declining pharma exports growth – A key challenge:

In 2014, pharmaceutical exports contributed 39 percent to the sector’s total value turnover. Consistently strong export performance over the last few decades, has catapulted the local drug industry in the not so common trajectory of the net foreign exchange earner for India. It is worth noting, though pharma exports grew at a rate of just 1.2 per cent to reach in 2013-14, it registered a CAGR of 21 percent over the last decade.

Some analysts estimate, the chances of Indian pharma exports touching even US$16 billion in 2014-15 are indeed challenging, especially considering low growth recorded by some of the large Indian pharma companies, including Ranbaxy, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories and Lupin, especially in the US market.

Mounting pricing pressure:

Consolidation process of pharmacy players in the US market is also affecting the profit margins of the Indian drug exporters.

Some key examples are:

  • Global alliance among three large pharmacy distributors – Walgreen, Alliance Boots and Amerisource –Bergen, in early 2013
  • Joint venture between the second largest US wholesale distributor, Cardinal Health, and CVS Caremark in December 2013
  • US pharmacy McKesson’s announced acquisition of US distributor Celesio in January 2014.
  • On April 9, 2015, Bloomberg reported that Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.’s acting Chief Executive Officer Stefano Pessina has expressed his intent to do more deals, just months after being on the saddle of the biggest US drugstore chain.

As a result, a few dominant pharmacy players emerged with hard bargaining power, exerting tough pricing pressures on the generic drug companies and that too in a market that has been facing already facing cutthroat generic price competition.

Consequently, according to published reports, the prices of generic drugs, in general, declined by around 20 to 30 per cent over the past 19 months, in the US.

Vulnerability in the key market:

According to IBEF March 2015, the United States (US) has been the prime importer of pharmaceuticals from India, accounting for over 25 per cent of Indian pharmaceutical exports, followed by the European Union and Africa at second and third positions, respectively.

India exports over US$4 billion of pharmaceutical products to the US, out of its annual exports of around $15 billion. Large domestic companies, such as Ranbaxy, Sun Pharma and Lupin account for around US$3 billion of exports to the US and the balance comes from a large number of other Indian pharma players.

Government sites 3 reasons:

According to the Union Ministry of Commerce, there are reportedly three key reasons for the pharma export falling short of target in the financial year 2014-15, namely:

-       Delayed regulatory approvals

-       Consolidation of pharmacy players in North America (discussed above)

-       Steep depreciation of currencies in emerging markets such as, Russia, Ukraine and Venezuela

A major controllable concern seems to be out of total control:

While articulating the above three factors, the Union Ministry of Commerce seems to have missed out a very important one that has been instrumental in perpetuating the recent slow down of Indian pharma exports, significantly. It is very much a controllable too, unlike the other three, though appears to be virtually out of total control of the domestic pharma companies.

Fortunately, media kept harping on it. PTI News of January 11, 2015 reported, while Indian pharma exports expected to touch a turnover US$16 billion in 2014-15, many Indian pharmaceutical companies continue to face regulatory action by the USFDA for alleged violation of ‘Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP)’ and other irregularities at the respective drug manufacturing facilities in different parts of the country.

This report observed, a number of Indian drug-makers, including Ranbaxy, Sun Pharma, IPCA Labs, Wockhardt and Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories faced sanctions of the USFDA over different issues ranging from hygiene levels in the plant and concealment of data on failed tests to even fabrication of records. As a result, in several cases, these companies have been barred from selling their drugs in the US and other countries.

The issue involves the very top:

Sun Pharma, post acquisition of Ranbaxy, tops the pharma league table in India with around 9 percent of domestic market share.

It is much well known though, that the US drug regulator has already imposed a ban on import of medicines into the US, produced at its key constituent Ranbaxy’s India-based factories. Earlier, certain drugs produced at its Dewas plant of Ranbaxy were also barred from export to the entire EU region for non-compliance to GMP norms.

On its own, the acquirer – Sun Pharma has also faced USFDA ban on import of products made at its Karkhadi plant in Gujarat.

Taking all these into consideration, one can probably argue that the ‘Make in India’ issue for Indian pharma is humongous and quite a widespread one. Its adverse impact is very much palpable even at the very top.

The root cause:

The root cause of non-conformance of specified GMP standards probably dwells deep within the mindset of the concerned companies, as comes in the narrative of a whistleblower. In that case, the speed of progress of Indian pharma exports’ revival, alongside the industry image makeover, would possibly face a strong and silent headwind.

Pharma sector needs a health check:

On April 16, 2015, ET Intelligence Group commented that “High-flying pharma sector may be in need of a health check”, further reinforcing the case for re-rating of, especially, the export-oriented pharma sector.

The report underscored, that foreign brokerages Bank of America Merrill Lynch and CLSA have flagged concerns about valuations in pharma priced to perfection leaving little room for error. According to data from Bloomberg, since last week, ‘buy’ recommendations by analysts have dropped in stocks like Sun Pharma, Lupin, Cipla, Ipca Labs, Cadila Healthcare, Aurobindo Pharma and Torrent Pharma.

Smacks of irrational exuberance?

The article emphasized that the pharma growth story has now moved to being one that ‘smacks of irrational exuberance’.

The unprecedented interest in the sector has had the effect of shirking off negatives, like regulatory clamps by US FDA, price control, and currency fluctuations in the emerging markets and delay in drug approvals in the US.

The saga still continues:

Triggered by a whistleblower report and confirmed by a number of different adverse plant audit findings, the USFDA has stepped up scrutiny of India make generic drugs, over the last two years. It is worth noting that Indian generic drug players supply round 40 percent of such medicines sold in the United States.

As we discuss the subject, Indian pharma players continue to receive the warning letters from the USFDA, related to breach of GMP standards.

Lamentably enough, significant parts of the same continue to be the data integrity issues. Even in 2014, some large domestic players including, Sun Pharmaceuticals, Cadila Pharma and Orchid Pharma came under scrutiny of the US drug regulator.

Most recently in March 2015, USFDA banned most imports from the Ipca plants, in Pithampur in Madhya Pradesh and Silvassa in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, for non-compliance of GMP standards. Earlier, in January 2015, the US regulatory agency reportedly banned imports from another Indian manufacturing plant of Ipca.

India tops the list on the US import alerts:

According to USFDA data, from 2013 onwards, over 20 drug manufacturing facilities across India attracted ‘Import Alerts’ as against seven from China, two each from Australian, Canadian and Japanese units and one each from South African and German facilities.

Unfortunately, despite intense local and global furore on this subject, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) of India, very strangely, do not seem to be much concerned on this critical issue, at least noticeably enough, besides making some occasional public statements on its working together with the USFDA in this regard.

I discussed similar subject in my blog post of September 29, 2014 titled “Make in India…Sell Anywhere in The World: An India Pharma Perspective.

Conclusion:

As it appears to me, the USFDA import bans related to breach of GMP standards, including ‘Data Integrity’, are mostly unrelated to knowledge deficiency of any kind – technical or otherwise, in the teams handling large drug manufacturing plants of India.

The details, as listed in the USFDA website, indicate that a large number of such incidents are related to falsification of data in the critical documentation process.

Earlier in this article, I termed the problem as very much controllable with the right kind of mindset to set things right, without probably resorting to cost-saving short cuts.

Prime Minister Modi, even during his very recent trips to France, Germany and Canada, passionate appealed to all, including pharma investors both local and global, to “Make in India” and “Sell Anywhere in The World” (exports). This call deserves to be responded with the right spirit and mindset and not just with lip services.

Failure to effectively address the patients’ safety requirements related issues of the foreign drug regulators, such as USFDA, and any direct or indirect attempt to categorize this plight as international ‘conspiracy’ of any kind, could jeopardize India’s interest in pharma exports, for a much longer while.

There is not even an iota of doubt today that “Make in India” image of Indian pharma has suffered a huge set back, at least in the largest and most valuable pharmaceutical market of the world.

As the well acclaimed English novelist George Elliot once said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been”, Indian pharma industry urgently needs an image makeover in this critical area…through a demonstrable change in mindset for doing things right…in every occasion and situation, always.

This is critical, as loss of credibility and reputation too frequently can push a pharma company virtually out of major international business for good… its current clout, might and financial power, not withstanding.

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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