Recent Supreme Court intervention compelling the Union Government to enforce stringent regulations both for approval and conduct of Clinical Trials (CT) in India, has unfortunately met with some strong resistance with stronger words. Some of these voices are from credible experienced sources and the shriller ones are mostly from vested interests with dubious credentials. However, it is also a fact that this interim period of process change in CT has resulted in around 50 per cent drop in new drug trials in the country, pharma MNCs being most affected.
The earlier system of CT in India created a huge ruckus as many players, both global and local, reportedly indulged in widespread malpractices, abuse and misuse of the system. The issue was not just of GCP or other CT related standards, but mostly related to ethical mind-set or lack of it and rampant exploitation of uninformed patients/volunteers, especially related to trial-related injuries and death All these are being well covered by the Indian and international media since quite some time.
The Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO) in an article titled, “Clinical trials in India: ethical concerns” reported as follows:
“Drug companies are drawn to India for several reasons, including a technically competent workforce, patient availability, low costs and a friendly drug-control system. While good news for India’s economy, the booming clinical trial industry is raising concerns because of a lack of regulation of private trials and the uneven application of requirements for informed consent and proper ethics review.”
Earlier system did not work:
Just to give a perspective, according to a report quoting the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), 25 people died in clinical trials conducted by 9 pharma MNCs, in 2010. Unfortunately, families of just five of these victims received” compensation for trial related deaths, which ranged from an abysmal Rs 1.5 lakh (US$ 2,500) to Rs 3 lakh (US$ 5,000) to the families of the diseased.
This report also highlighted that arising out of this critical negligence, the then DCGI, for the first time ever, was compelled to summon the concerned nine pharma MNCs on June 6, 2011 to question them on this issue and give a clear directive to pay up the mandatory compensation for deaths related to CTs by June 20, 2011, or else all CTs of these nine MNCs, which were ongoing at that time or yet to start, will not be allowed.
The 9 pharma MNCs summoned by the DCGI to pay up the mandatory compensation for deaths related to CTs were reported in the media as Wyeth, Quintiles, Eli Lilly, Amgen, Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), Sanofi, PPD and Pfizer.
The report also indicated that after this ultimatum, all the 9 MNCs had paid compensation to the concerned families of the patients, who died related to the CTs. However, the situation did not change much even thereafter.
Indictment of Indian Parliamentary Committee:
On May 8, 2012, the department related ‘Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC)’ on Health and Family Welfare presented its 59th Report on the functioning of the Indian Drug Regulator – the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) in both the houses of the Parliament.
The report made the following scathing remarks on Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) under its point 2.2:
“The Committee is of the firm opinion that most of the ills besetting the system of drugs regulation in India are mainly due to the skewed priorities and perceptions of CDSCO. For decades together it has been according primacy to the propagation and facilitation of the drugs industry, due to which, unfortunately, the interest of the biggest stakeholder i.e. the consumer has never been ensured.”
Catalytic change with tough norms:
The intervention of the apex court heralded the beginning of a catalytic changing process in the CT environment of India. The court intervention was in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the NGO Swasthya Adhikar Manch calling for robust measures in the procedural guidelines for drug trials in the country.
In an affidavit to the Court, the Government admitted that between 2005 and 2012, 2,644 people died during CTs of 475 New Chemical Entities (NCEs)/New Molecular Entities (NMEs), with serious adverse events related deaths taking 80 lives.
Accordingly, changes have been/are being made mostly in accordance with the recommendations of Professor Ranjit Roy Chaudhury Experts Committee that was constituted specifically for this purpose by the Union Ministry of Health.
Prof. Ranjit Roy Chaudhury experts committee in its 99-page report has reportedly recommended some radical changes in the CT space of India. Among others, the report also includes:
- Setting up of a Central Accreditation Council (CAC) to oversee the accreditation of institutes, clinical investigators and ethics committees for CTs in the country.
- Only those trials, which will be conducted at centers meeting these requirements, be considered for approval by the DCGI.
All modifications in the procedural norms and guidelines for CTs are expected to protect not just the interest of the country in this area, but would also ensure due justice to the volunteers participating in those trials.
The DCGI has now also put in place some tough norms to make the concerned players liable for the death of, or injury to, any drug trial subject. These guidelines were not so specific and stringent in the past. There are enough instances that CT in India, until recently, had exploited poor volunteers enormously, many of which reportedly did not have any inkling that the efficacy and safety of the drugs that they were administering were still undergoing tests and that too on them.
With those radical changes to the rules of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, pertaining to CT, it is now absolutely mandatory for the principal investigator of the pharmaceutical company, unlike in the past, to reveal the contract between the subject and the company to the DCGI. Besides, much reported process of videography of informed consent ensuring full knowledge of the participant has already been made mandatory. Further, any death during the process of CT would now necessarily have to be reported to the DCGI within 24 hours.
A report quoting the Union Minister of Health has highlighted that, “Earlier, the informed consent of the persons on which the trials had been conducted was often manipulated by the companies to the disadvantage of the subjects,”
Reaction to change:
With the Government of India tightening the norms of CT, the drug trial process and the rules are undergoing a metamorphosis with increased liability and costs to the pharma players and Contract Research Organizations (CROs). The reaction has been moderate to rather belligerent from some corners. One such player reportedly has publicly expressed annoyance by saying: “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.”
There were couple of similar comments or threats, whatever one may call these, in the past, but the moves of the Government continued to be in the right direction with the intervention of the Supreme Court.
No reverse gear:
Thus, coming under immense pressure from the Indian Parliament, the civil society and now the scrutiny of the Supreme Court for so many CT related deaths and consequential patients’ compensation issues, the Government does not seem to have any other options left now but to bring US$ 500 million CT segment of the country, which is expected to cross a turnover of US$ 1 Billion by 2016, under stringent regulations. Thus any move in the reverse gear under any threat, as mentioned above, appears unlikely now.
Experts believe that the growth of the CT segment in India is driven mainly by the MNCs for easy availability of a large treatment naive patient population with varying disease pattern and demographic profile at a very low cost, as compared to many other countries across the world.
While the importance of CTs to ensure better and more effective treatment for millions of patients in India is immense, it should not be allowed at the cost of patients’ safety, under any garb…not even under any open threat of shifting CTs outside India.
If the DCGI loosens the rope in this critical area and even inadvertently allows some pharmaceutical players keep exploiting the system just to keep the CT costs down only for commercial considerations, judiciary has no option but to effectively intervene in response to PILs, as happened in this particular case too.
The new system, besides ensuring patients’/volunteers’ safety, justice, fairplay and good discipline for all, will have the potential to help reaping a rich economic harvest through creation of a meaningful and vibrant CT industry in India in the long run, simultaneously benefitting millions of patients, as we move on. However, the DCGI should ensure to add reasonable speed to the entire CT approval process, diligently.
Taking all these into consideration, let all concerned support the new CT regime in India, sans any threats…veiled or otherwise.
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.