Good number of stories on US-FDA banning several drug manufacturing facilities of major domestic players of India over serious quality related issues, have been doing the rounds since about a year and almost at a regular interval.
The quagmire has snowballed into serious apprehensions on the quality of Indian generic drugs, across the globe. Various statements of US-FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, during her much talked about maiden visit to India, in February 2014, added further credence to the issue.
“If you want our market, meet our standards”:
During Hamburg’s India visit, her reported candid warning to the Indian drug exporters to America added further fuel to the above concern in India. She clearly underscored:
“If you want our market, meet our standards.”
Even in the face of this stern warning, when major drug manufacturers of India, such as, Ranbaxy, Wockhardt, Sun Pharma and some others continued to fail in meeting US-FDA drug quality standards in their respective plants, I wrote the following in one of my earlier blog posts titled, “Does India Believe in Two Different Drug Quality Standards?”:
“In a situation like this, especially when many Indian manufacturers are repeatedly failing to meet the American quality standards, the following questions come up:
- Is the US-FDA manufacturing requirement too troublesome, if not oppressive?
- If not, do the Indian and other patients too deserve to have drugs conforming to the same quality standards?
Answers to these questions are absolutely vital to convince ourselves, why should Indian patients have access to drugs of lower quality standards than Americans, with consequential increase in their health risks?”
The first question on ‘troublesomeness’ now partly answered?
This is because another recent media report brought to the fore that, having completed their assessment of drug manufacturing violations at Ranbaxy’s facility in Toansa, European regulators have said although deficiencies were found, they pose no risk to public health. The regulators said they were satisfied by corrective measures put in place by the company after U.S. regulators found deviations in January.
The report also highlights that this assessment of the European regulators stands in stark contrast to the response of US regulators to the deficiencies found at the same plant.
It is worth noting that US-FDA continues to restrict Ranbaxy from making and selling pharmaceutical ingredients from the Toansa facility “to prevent substandard quality products from reaching US consumers.”
The same plant meets drug safety standards of Europe, but ‘unsafe’ for America!
Quite contrary to the above stern statement of US-FDA, according to the above report from Reuters, European drug regulators commented as follows:
“The inspection team concluded that there was no evidence that any medicines on the EU market that have an active pharmaceutical ingredient manufactured in Toansa were of unacceptable quality or presented a risk to the health of patients taking them.”
The further added, “This conclusion was supported by tests of samples of these medicines, all of which met the correct quality specifications.”
Regulatory audit standards were the same for both EU and US regulators:
It is also interesting to note from the report that according to a statement from the US-FDA:
“EMA and FDA inspected the Toansa facility using similar quality standards and underlying principles of current good manufacturing practices.”
Was the decision of US-FDA ‘import ban’ subjective?
This critical question arises because of another US-FDA statement that states as follows:
“While inspections were similar, the two regulatory authorities applied their own, differing, regulatory and legal standards to address the violations.”
Subjectivity in decision-making could encourage “Conspiracy Theory”:
Generic drugs currently contribute over 80 percent of prescriptions written in the US. Around 40 percent of prescriptions and Over The Counter (OTC) drugs that are now sold in the United States come from India. Almost all of these are cheaper generic versions of patent expired drugs. Total annual drug export of India, currently at around US$ 15 billion, is more than the domestic turnover of the pharma industry. Hence, India’s commercial stake in this area is indeed mind-boggling.
In a situation like this, the apprehension of subjectivity in the decision making process of US-FDA related to ‘import bans’, if linked with, say for example, even the missed opportunities for ‘first to launch’ generic versions of several patent-expired blockbuster drugs in the United States by Ranbaxy, could lead to much undesirable ‘Conspiracy Theory’, further souring the relationship between India and America.
As I mentioned in one of my earlier blog posts titled “Loss of Ranbaxy Gain of Big Pharma…And Intriguing Coincidences”, when the emerging dots associated with the missed opportunities for ‘first to launch’ generic versions of drugs like, Lipitor (Pfizer), Diovan (Novartis) and Nexium (AstraZeneca) are connected, an uncomfortable pattern could emerge favoring Big Pharma and obviously adversely affecting Indian companies like Ranbaxy.
The First Dot: Uncertainty over Lipitor generic launch:
Like many other large Indian players, ‘first to launch’ strategy with the new generic drugs has been the key focus of Ranbaxy since long, much before its serious trouble with the US-FDA begun in 2008. ‘Import Bans’ on two of its manufacturing facilities by the US regulator in that year created huge uncertainty in its launch of a generic version of Pfizer’s anti-lipid blockbuster drug Lipitor in 2011. On time launch of a generic version of Lipitor was estimated to have generated a turnover of around US$ 600 million for Ranbaxy in the first six months and commensurate loss to Pfizer for the generic entry.
Despite its neck deep trouble with the US-FDA at that time, Ranbaxy ultimately did somehow manage to launch generic Lipitor, after partnering with Teva Pharmaceutical of Israel.
The Second Dot: Indefinite delay in Diovan generic launch:
Lipitor story was just the beginning of Ranbaxy’s trouble of not being able to translate its ‘first to launch’ advantage of patent-expired blockbuster drugs into commercial success, thus allowing the Big Pharma constituents to enjoy market monopoly with their respective blockbuster drugs even after patent expiry.
Despite Ranbaxy holding the exclusive rights to market the first generic valsartan (Diovan of Novartis and Actos of Takeda) for 180 days, much to its dismay, even after valsartan patent expiry in September 2012, a generic version of the blockbuster antihypertensive is yet to see the light of the day. However, Mylan Inc. has, now launched a generic combination formulation of valsartan with hydrochlorothiazide.
US-FDA drug ‘Import Ban’ from the concerned manufacturing facility of Ranbaxy gave rise to this hurdle favoring the Big Pharma, as discussed above.
As a result, Novartis in July 2013 reportedly raised its guidance announcing that the company now expects full-year sales to grow at a low single-digit rate, where it had earlier predicted net sales to turn up flat. It also guided for core earnings to decline in the low single digits, revising guidance for a mid-single-digit drop.
The Third Dot: Delay in Nexium generic launch:
Ranbaxy had earlier created for itself yet another opportunity to become the first to launch a generic version of the blockbuster anti-peptic ulcerant drug of AstraZeneca – Nexium in the United States, as the drug went off patent on May 27, 2014. However, due to recent US-FDA import ban from its Toansa plant, this opportunity too seems to be fading away for Ranbaxy.
Delay in the launch of generic Nexium, which incidentally is the second-biggest seller of AstraZeneca, would make a big impact on the predator-chased company’s profit.
With the global sales of Nexium at US$ 3.87 billion and US sales at US$ 2.12 billion in 2013, retaining its monopoly status in the all-important US market beyond the end of May would not only limit a forecast decline in AstraZeneca’s 2014 earnings, but would also protect bonuses for top management of the British pharma giant, as the above report says.
Let me hasten to add yet again, while highlighting the stark differences of interpretations on drug quality standards of the same plant between the European and American regulators and connecting the dots of significant missed opportunities of the Indian drug manufacturers, I do not intend to postulate any ‘Machiavellian Hypothesis’.
I just wanted to establish that both alleged ‘subjective’ decision making process of the US-FDA and coincidences of a series of missed opportunities encountered by the Indian drug manufacturers related to first to launch generics in America are now realities, which if remain unaddressed could germinate into a ‘Conspiracy Theory’, at least in some corners. This could further sour existing Indo-US relationship.
While, I am confident that the new government of India with its, so far, well demonstrated ‘Can Do’ spirit would take these critical issues up in the ensuing bilateral ministerial level meetings, an immediate and in-depth study should also be initiated with valuable inputs from the independent experts to ferret out the real reasons behind these facts, including:
- Why are the cGMP related issues in India repeatedly arising mainly with the US-FDA?
- Are the requirements of the US-FDA though too onerous for the Indian drug manufacturers, yet reasonable as per global norms?
- If so, how come the drugs manufactured in the same Indian plant though declared unsafe by the US-FDA, considered safe by the European regulators?
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.