The Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) has declared the Year 2015 as the Year of ‘Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API)’. Following it up on February 25, 2015, the Union Minister of Chemicals & Fertilizers Ananth Kumar assured the Pharmaceutical Industry that appropriate decisions will be taken soon to make India self-sufficient in Bulk Drugs (APIs).
The Minister also confirmed having received the recommendations of high level ‘Katoch Committee’ that was set up by the Government on October 8, 2013 to look into various issues concerning the API. This would be implemented expeditiously after taking the Union Cabinet’s approval, as the Bulk Drugs constitute the backbone of the Pharma Industry and the sector needs to be incentivized to take on the challenges from cheaper imports.
According to a recent report, in June 2015, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizer has floated a draft cabinet note with the recommendations of the ‘Katoch Committee’. Quoting a senior official of the DoP the report mentioned that the cabinet note also proposes formation of a separate bulk drug authority, which will look into the implementation of such schemes.
The DoP Secretary Dr. V.K. Subburaj has lately reiterated that there is an urgent need to bring about self-sufficiency in the field of API.
In this article, I shall restrict my discussion only to those APIs, which are required for manufacturing the essential medicines in India.
Significant dependence on China:
For a large number of essential medicines, India heavily depends on API imports from China.
On December 12, 2014, the Minister of Commerce and Industry informed the Indian Parliament that in case of 12 essential drugs namely: Paracetamol, Metformin, Ranitidine, Amoxicillin, Ciprofloxacin, Cefixime, Acetyl salicylic acid, Ascorbic acid, Ofloxacin, Ibuprofen, Metronidazole and Ampicillin, there is significant dependence on imports. Approximately 80-90 percent of these imports are from China. He mentioned that the decision to import, and the country of origin for such imports, are based on economic considerations.
The Minister also informed the Parliament that a Committee of Secretaries, under the Chairmanship of the Secretary, Department of Health Research was set up on October 8, 2013 to study and identify the APIs of critical importance and to work out a package of interventions/concessions required to build domestic production capabilities, and examine the cost implication.
Interestingly, rapid and consistent increase in API import from China has been reported as follows:
|API import from China (Rs. Crore)
|April-September in 2014-15
Ironically, though India manufactures over 30 percent of global generic drug consumption, more than 80 percent of APIs required to produce these medicines come from China.
In ‘RIS Policy Brief’ February 2015, Dr. Y. K. Hamied, Chairman of CIPLA was also quoted sounding an alarm bell, as follows:
“If China decided one bright day to stop export to India, we would be finished. The pharma industry is zero, both domestic and export, and we are looking at that danger objectively”.
Even, the National Security Adviser of India has reportedly expressed similar concern and urged to create adequate infrastructural facilities to make India self-reliant, at least, on the essential medicines, without further delay.
Another recent industry report:
A July 2014 report of ASSOCHAM, titled “Pharmaceuticals Sector in India: Challenges Faced & Suggested Way Forward” also underscores, since a very significant volume of India’s drug imports are concentrated in China, this lack of self–sufficiency in APIs poses significant risk to the drug security of the country. Any deterioration in relationships with China can potentially cause severe domestic shortages in the supply of essential drugs.
Additionally, China could easily increase prices of some of these drugs where it enjoys virtual monopoly, noted the ASSOCHAM study.
The report further points out that this risk extends beyond the domestic market to export markets, as Chinese pharmaceutical companies, that have traditionally focused on large-volume intermediates and unregulated markets are beginning to “forward integrate”, with increasing focus on exports to regulated markets.
This emerging trend is supported by the recent improvements in local Chinese cGMP and product quality standards, increase in the number of manufacturing sites approved by the USFDA, and current filings of Abbreviated New Drug Applications (ANDAs) by the local companies of China. Given their overall dominance in intermediates and API manufacturing, Chinese players can pose a serious competitive threat to their Indian counterparts, much beyond the APIs for essential drugs, the above study noted.
‘Katoch Committee’ recommendations:
The recommendations of the ‘Katoch Committee’, as revealed by the the Minister to the law makers of India, appears to me a long list of ‘Things to Do’ without addressing the intricacies involved with the complicated core issue.
On May 8, 2015, the Minister of State of the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers informed the Rajya Sabha of the Indian Parliament that in its report on API manufacturing in India, the Katoch Committee has inter-alia recommended:
- Establishment of Mega Parks for APIs with common facilities such as common Effluent Treatment Plants (ETPs), Testing facilities, Captive Power Plants/assured power supply by state systems, Common Utilities/Services such as storage, testing laboratories, IPR management, designing, etc., maintained by a separate Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV)
- A scheme for extending financial assistance to states to acquire land and also for setting up common facilities
- Revival of public sector units for starting the manufacturing of selected and very essential critical drugs (e.g., penicillins, paracetamol etc.)
- Financial investment from the Government for development of clusters which may be in the form of a professionally managed dedicated equity fund for the promotion of manufacture of APIs
- Extending fiscal benefits to creation of the entire community cluster infrastructure and individual unit infrastructure
- Extension of fiscal and financial benefits to promote the bulk drugs sector
- Promoting stronger industry-academia interaction
- Synergizing R&D promotion efforts by various government agencies
- Incentivizing scientists
- Duty exemptions for capital goods imports
On the face of it, the recommendations appear to be good. However, are these not too simplistic, based on just what is visible on the surface, without going into the complexity of the issue?
I shall now briefly dwell upon some of these areas, from my own perspective of the core issue and the key challenges involved.
Profitability is undoubtedly a major reason why the indigenous production of important APIs, required to formulate widely used essential medicines, has paved the way for low priced Chinese equivalents. This has been acknowledged by all concerned and has happened more with APIs involving fermentation technology.
Besides other factors, API profitability and commensurate return on capital employed (RoCE) are primarily driven by the product design, process technology in use together with its associated requirements, cost of capital goods and utilities, working capital requirement, quality of sustainable demand generated and achievement of ‘economies of scale’. The last one is so important, as it signifies that proportionate saving in costs is gained by an increased level of production. Simply speaking, the greater the yield and the quantity of a API produced, the lower will be the per-unit fixed cost, as these costs are shared over a larger number of goods.
Additionally, ‘any time cGMP-audit preparedness’ for the big customers, make the running of the operation really unenviable.
Highly competitive generic API market, with larger number of manufacturers, is driven by its customers’ requirement of the lowest possibly cost for any quality product. With this ascending trend, global API manufacturing business has started slowly shifting from the long time much preferred big-name players of the western world, to the upcoming ones in India and China. Unfortunately, now even India has started importing APIs in significant volume from China. APIs of Chinese origin for Indian essential drugs are not just cheaper, but are also available almost on the shelf.
This fiercely competitive scenario has compelled a sizeable number of bulk drug manufacturers to shut shops in India. Many other ‘API only’ Indian manufacturers are now venturing into production and marketing of higher margin formulations, moving up the pharma value chain.
Some API producers have also entered into contract manufacturing of formulations in large quantities. A few others have already entered or are trying to enter into their API based formulation manufacturing agreements with large pharma MNCs for the regulated markets, and by filing DMFs and ANDAs.
To sum up, the challenges before the API sector, in my view, are predominantly as follows:
- Intense price competition
- Requirement of attaining ‘economies of scale’ for business sustainability, at times leading to overcapacity
- Low profitability and RoCE
- ‘Any time technical audit’ preparedness for high-end customers
- Capital intensive business
- High inventory carrying cost both for intermediates and finished goods
- Long credit demand
- High working capital requirement
- Undifferentiated capabilities
- Product obsolescence with changing disease profile or newer off-patent molecules coming in the same therapy area
Need to think ‘outside the box’:
I do not have access to the complete report of the Katoch Committee, just yet. However, going by what the Government has reported to the Indian Parliament on this subject, it appears that overall recommendations made by the Committee of Secretaries on the subject, are steps in the right direction.
If all the suggestions are implemented, the cost of manufacturing infrastructure and utilities are expected to come down. However, I am not quite sure, whether just these steps would be good enough making India self-reliant on APIs required to manufacture the essential medicines.
Nevertheless, to achieve the desired goal, some critical questions would still need to be answered with high clarity, such as:
- Despite lowering cost of manufacturing, would it still be enough to neutralize Chinese competition?
- Stakes being very high for China, if it feels threatened of loosing the booming API generic business from India, won’t the Chinese Government not find out ways and means to retain its ground? If so, are there proactive measures ready to negate the possible counter-move by China?
- Would this cost reduction help most of the Indian API manufacturers achieving ‘economies of scale’ for reasonable sustainability, with cost competitiveness in the business?
- Most of the essential drugs are low cost products. Thus, what happens, if Indian API manufacturers in clusters, thus created, decide to produce and sell only higher margin APIs and intermediates, including for the global innovator companies, without getting engaged in APIs for essential medicines?
Since this crucial problem is multi-faceted one, the recommendations should address all possible ‘what if’ scenarios, thinking ‘outside the box’. Mere creation of infrastructural and financial support base, may not help addressing all the key challenges, effectively. After all, it’s an open market competition, and Chinese players are tough nuts to crack, as they have been demonstrating time and again in various fields of activities.
Having achieved dominance in the Indian generic API market, Chinese bulk drug manufacturers are now concentrating on continuous improvement in process technology to drive down the cost further. According to available reports, they are achieving it too, with great success, focusing on multiple critical areas starting from product and reactor design to much wider use of catalysis.
To effectively compete with Chinese APIs, especially for essential drugs, Indian API manufacturers in the clusters would require to start, at least, from where China is today in this area, and take off from there. This is possible, though quite challenging too.
Moreover, manufacturing overcapacity for generic APIs is already existing in China. If it gets further aggravated with overcapacity created in India for the same molecule, the overall scenario may lead to a desperate sales and marketing situation of survival for the fittest.
No doubt, over-dependence on Chinese APIs for the essential medicines may pose a threat to the drug security of India, as many have already opined, including the National Security Advisor of the country. Nonetheless, the situation could possibly turn even worse, without imposition of artificial tariff barrier, if India decides to rely on a simplistic solution for a multi-factorial complex problem.
‘Katoch Committee’ report is a good initiative for the domestic API business, in general. Nonetheless, to significantly reduce over-dependence on imported Chinese bulk drugs and be self reliant on high quality and competitively priced APIs for essential medicines, India would need to think ‘outside the box’, undoubtedly.
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.