Nine Major Challenges Constraining Indian Pharmaceutical Industry From Taking a Quantum Leap

Among the developing nations of the world, India has already carved out a special niche for itself in many business verticals of the pharmaceutical industry and is currently being recognized as the ‘pharmacy of the world’ for the generic medicines.

Even over seven years after ushering-in of the product patent regime in India in January 2005, domestic pharmaceutical companies keep dominating the Indian market overwhelmingly in all respect. Nonetheless, rejuvenated interest of the global players on India, because of unignorable business potential in the country, can now be quite palpably felt, despite many formidable challenges all around.

In the post product patent regime, though Indian companies have started investing in R&D, the first ‘Made in India’ new and innovative drug is yet to receive marketing approval anywhere in the world, including India. Thus the much needed thrust on innovation should continue unabated.

Unfortunately, despite continuous growth of the Indian pharmaceutical market and that too at a reasonably brisk pace since over decades, quite a large number of small-scale pharmaceutical units were compelled to shut their operations since 2008, just for not being able to adequately cope with the tough business challenges and competitive pressure. As the country moves ahead, these challenges, coupled with fierce competitive pressure, could further escalate, if not attended to with crafty strategies by the individual companies ably supported by the robust healthcare-reform oriented policy measures by the government.

In this article, I shall flag nine such major challenges, not necessarily in the same sequence, that the industry and the government should jointly address to create a win-win situation for all – the industry, patients, government and all other stakeholders.

 I.  High ‘Out of Pocket (OoP)’ expenditure limiting access to medicines:

While India is making reasonably rapid strides in its economic growth, the country is increasingly facing constraints in providing healthcare benefits to a vast majority of its population with ballooning ‘Out of Pocket (OoP)’ expenditure of around 74 percent and 72 percent of which is the cost of medicines (Source: HLEG  Report).

This is mainly because of the following key reasons:

  • Low public spending on healthcare at around just 1.1 percent of the GDP
  • Fragile healthcare infrastructure
  • Very low penetration of health insurance system for all strata of society
  • Poor healthcare delivery system
  • Absence of ‘Universal Health Coverage’

Government Share in Total Healthcare Spend is One of the Lowest in the World 

Country

Brazil

China

Mexico

South Africa

Pakistan

Bangladesh

Sri Lanka

India

% of Healthcare Spend

47

62.5

49

44

33

34

45

29

(Source: data compiled)

Changing disease pattern increases healthcare expenditure, further limiting access

As the disease pattern is undergoing a shift from acute to non-infectious chronic illnesses, requiring longer duration of treatment, OoP expenditure on healthcare will increase even more, bringing greater misery to the population in general and creating even greater access barrier, if no action is taken immediately.

It is worth acknowledging that one finds some good initiatives though, especially for the population Below the Poverty Line (BPL) and hears about the success of ‘Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna (RSBY)’ and other health insurance schemes through rural micro health insurance units. It has been reported that currently around 40 such schemes are active in the country, which is far from enough.

II.  Public and government pressure to make drug prices more affordable:

Pharmaceutical companies in India have been constrained to live with continuing focus of the government and also of the civil society on ‘reasonably affordable medicines’ irrespective of the fact whether they are generic or patented.

The Department of Pharmaceuticals has reportedly started comparing Indian drug prices with their international equivalents in terms of the ‘purchasing power parity’ and ‘per capita income’ and not just their prevailing prices in various developed markets converted into rupees. With such comparisons the government has already started voicing that prices of medicines in India are not the cheapest but on the contrary one of the costliest in the world.

Thus, one of the critical challenges of the Indian Pharmaceutical Industry continues to be delivering affordable medicines for a large section of the population of the country, as expected by the government. Reported high profitability, at least, of the listed pharmaceuticals companies gives an impression to the stakeholders, including the government, that there is a scope for further reduction of pharmaceutical prices in India.

Pharmaceuticals being covered under the ‘Essential Commodities Act’, empower the government to announce the ‘administered price’ for essential medicines. Current debate and deliberations on the New Drug Policy both by the Supreme Court and the Group of Ministers is a case in point.

Be that as it may, the proposed pricing methodology and the span of price control in the long overdue New Drug Policy have just been announced by the Group of Ministers (GoM) on September 27, 2012, which is in line with what I had recommended in my article of May 21, 2012 in this blog.

In my view, the new proposal of the GoM is expected to improve both the availability and affordability of the essential medicines, significantly.

 III.  Inadequate penetration of current health insurance schemes:

Health insurance coverage is still very low in India as compared to, among many other countries, Brazil and South Africa and at-par with our neighboring island state Sri Lanka. The details are as follows:

Country

Brazil

South Africa

Sri Lanka

India

% of Healthcare Spend

21

39

10

10

(Source: data compiled)

Moreover, currently health insurance schemes only cover expenses towards hospitalization. Ideally, medical insurance schemes in India should also cover domiciliary or in-patient treatment costs and perhaps loss of income too, if India wants to bring down the OoP expenditure for its population or at least till such time the ambitious ‘Universal Health Coverage’ project gets translated into reality.

IV. Pricing of Patented Drugs: 

Innovative pharmaceutical products patented in India are expected to facilitate access to latest modern medicines to the country’s population to meet their unmet needs, if available at a reasonably affordable price.

To respond to this important need of the patients, many innovator companies like, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) have already announced a differential pricing mechanism for their patented medicines in India.

Recent grant of compulsory license of Bayer’s Nexavar to Natco, among other reasons on pricing issue by the Indian Patent Office, has raised serious concerns among the innovator companies across the world on their Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) in India, but not on their pricing strategy for the country, as of now.

It appears rather impractical to envisage that routine grant of compulsory license by the Indian Patent Office will be able to resolve the critical issue of improving access to patented medicines on a long term basis.  Such decisions may be taken only after exhausting all other access improvement measures.

Moreover, to improve access of such medicines to the common man, the Government of India should have a robust procurement plan for these products, at a well negotiated price, for supply through Government hospitals and dispensaries.

Despite all these, it remains a hard reality that pressure on pricing of patented products, very likely, will continue to pose a challenge in India.

An innovative approach

To effectively address the challenge of pricing of patented medicines in India, Swiss drug major Roche, has reportedly  entered into a ‘never-before’ technology transfer and manufacturing contract for biologics with a local Indian company, Emcure Pharma, for its two widely acclaimed Monoclonal Antibodies’ anti-cancer drugs – Herceptin and MabThera.

The report says that in the past, Emcure had signed licensing deals with US-based bio-pharmaceutical drug maker Gilead Life Sciences for Tenafovir and with Johnson and Johnson for Darunvir. Both are anti-HIV drugs.

In this regard, media reports further indicated that Roche would offer to Indian patients significantly cheaper, local branded versions of these two anti-cancer drugs by early next year. The same news item also quoted the Roche spokesperson from Basel, Switzerland commenting as follows:

“The scope is to enable access for a large majority of patients who currently pay out of pocket as well as to partner with the government to enable increased access to our products for people in need”.

Such ‘out of box’ strategies and initiatives by the global innovator companies could help keeping prices of patented products affordable to the Indian patients, improving their access significantly. 

 V. Fostering innovation and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR):

Innovation:

Many companies expect that ‘tomorrow’ will be a ‘mega today’ and prefer to continue to run their businesses more or less the same way, as what they are currently doing. At the same time the global market keeps sending, in very small measures though, but definite and continuous signals of changes. As we move on, we realize that ‘tomorrow’ will not be a ‘mega today’, just as ‘today’ is not a ‘mega yesterday’. To meet such challenges of change squarely and realistically, one will need to embrace a culture of ‘continuous innovation’ in all the fields of business processes in India.
Therefore, the name of the game, while competing within the globalized economy is “continuous innovation”, which is more than a novel idea or a set of novel ideas. It is, in fact, the process of translating the novel idea/ideas into reality.
Like other industries, the pharmaceutical sector in India will also have to innovate with cutting edge ideas, convert them to implementable business models and processes, which in turn would help these companies to remain competitive in the globalized market place. The innovation, which I am talking about, extends far beyond Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) for a product.
While innovation is an absolute must to remain and grow the business, having patented products and marketing these brands effectively are desirable, but not a ‘must do’ for the Indian pharmaceutical companies, just yet. Unfortunately, not much inclusive innovation is taking place within the industry as of now, which consequently poses a great challenge for a quantum leap of this knowledge based industry of the country.

IPR

From the perspective of the global innovator companies across the world, ‘lack of a robust innovation friendly ecosystem’ in India is still a major challenge. However, home grown companies feel otherwise. This is mainly because, before enactment of the Indian Patents Act (amended) 2005, it was widely reported that mainly for the interest of Public Health and probably also to ensure that the growth of the domestic pharmaceutical industry does not get very adversely impacted, the Parliament of India ensured inclusion of a number of ‘safeguards’ including checks on ‘ever-greening’ of pharmaceutical patents and broader provisions for the grant of ‘Compulsory License’ in the statute.

Such provisions in the Indian Patents Act throw a major challenge to the global innovator companies spreading across the continents to get many of their new molecules patented in India and subsequently launch in the country. 

 VI. Counterfeit Medicines:

India still needs to generate enough credible data to convince itself and then to establish that counterfeit drugs are posing a growing menace to the humanity. All stakeholders should join hands to address this public health issue, leaving aside petty commercial interests, be it generic pharmaceutical companies of India or research based pharmaceutical players across the world.

The other side of the coin is that counterfeit versions of high value and/or high volume brands of the pharmaceutical companies in India are adversely affecting their business performance posing another major challenge. 

 VII.  Talent Pool: 

As we know, access to healthcare comprises not just medicines but more importantly healthcare infrastructure like, doctors, paramedics, diagnostics, healthcare centers and hospitals. In India the demand for these services has outstripped supply. There is a huge short fall in ‘Healthcare Manpower’ of the country as demonstrated in the following table:

Target Actual Shortfall %
Doctors 1,09,484 26,329 76
Specialists 58,352 6,935 88
Nurses 1,38,623 65,344 53
Radiographers 14,588 2,221 85
Lab Technicians 80,308 16,208 80

Source: Rural Health Statistics 2011 in 12th Plan draft chapter

Besides above, other key challenge faced by the pharmaceutical industry in this area is dearth of industry-specific employable work force in important areas like, R&D, clinical research, pre-clinical and clinical studies, manufacturing, quality assurance, besides sales and marketing. 

 VIII.  Requirement of Stringent Regulatory Practices:

In the increasingly globalized economy, strict conformance to high regulatory standards like, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Clinical Practices (GCP) and Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) pose another major challenge for the pharmaceutical industry in India.

Those pharmaceutical companies who are involved in manufacturing and export of drugs and pharmaceuticals are required to meet standards set up not only by the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) and/or the State Drug controllers, but also of the regulatory authorities of the respective countries, where their products will be exported.

 IX.   Ethics and Compliance: 

We have been witnessing for quite some time that ethical concerns related to the pharmaceutical industry, spanning across clinical trials to ethical marketing practices, are hugely bothering a large section of the stakeholders, solely for the interest of the patients.

Such concerns are assuming greater proportion, as the pharmaceutical industry is increasingly facing stringent regulatory and media scrutiny in gradually expanding areas of business operations. Thus, to overcome this challenge, there is a dire need for the industry to move beyond its usual bottom-line centric model to a transparent, comprehensive and implementable ‘Ethics and Compliance Models’, which are well meshed with all other business processes.

The Department of Pharmaceuticals has not delivered yet:

To help the pharmaceutical industry overcoming all the above nine major challenges in India, even the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP), considered being the nodal department for the pharma sector does not seem to have delivered, as yet.

In 2008, when the DoP was formed, it was widely expected that the department will be able to address the following key pharmaceutical industry related issues, with an integrated approach, to strike a right balance between the growth fundamentals of the industry and the Public Health Interest:

  • A modern, both growth and access oriented, drug policy and pricing mechanism.
  • Continuous improvement of access to high quality and affordable modern medicines for all.
  • An efficient, transparent and non-discretionary drug price regulatory system.
  • An appropriate ecosystem to encourage R&D and foster pharmaceutical innovation.
  • Addressing the issue of high ‘Out of Pocket (OoP)’ expenditure of the general population towards medicines in particular and healthcare in general together with the Ministry of Health.
  • Facilitating fiscal and tax incentives required by the Micro-Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) within the pharmaceutical industry of India to help driving their growth.

It is worth mentioning, all these will necessitate a close coordination and integration of work of various departments falling under different ministries of the government, DoP being the nodal department. Unfortunately, this is not happening today, the way it should. 

Conclusion:

If remedial measures are not taken, sooner than later, to overcome these nine major challenges  bothby the pharmaceutical industry and the government working in tandem, it will be difficult for the industry to take a quantum leap in the foreseeable future, as is being envisaged by many.

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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