A recently published book on pharma industry tried to expose the deceit behind many generic-drug manufacturing—and the consequent risks to global health. This publication is described as an ‘explosive narrative investigation of the generic drug boom that reveals fraud and life-threatening dangers on a global scale.’ However, I reckon, this is just a part of the story, and its huge adverse impact on public health flows generally from the following facts:
- Greater use of generic drugs is hailed as one of the most important public-health developments of the twenty-first century.
- Today, almost 90 percent of global pharma market, in volume terms, is comprised of generics.
- These are mostly manufactured in China and India.
- The drug regulators continuously assure patients and doctors that generic drugs are identical to their brand-name counterparts, just less expensive.
No question, such deceit, blatant fraud and data manipulation – seriously affecting drug quality of generic medicines, shake the very purpose of making affordable drugs accessible to many. But, simultaneously, lack of transparency – right across the various functions of a pharma business, is also making a host of modern life-saving drugs unaffordable and inaccessible to even more patients. Although, both are despicable acts, but the latter one is not discussed as much.
Thus, in this article, I shall dwell on the second one – how attempts for pharma business ‘transparency’ for expanded drug access to patients, getting repeatedly foiled, especially in light of what happened on May 28, 2019, in the 72nd World Health Assembly (WHA).
Does pharma want low business transparency to continue?
Despite so many encouraging initiatives being taken in the pharma industry over a period of time, gross lack of transparency in its business continues, since long, despite this is being a raging issue. The obvious question, therefore, remains: Does pharma want low business transparency to continue? Thus, to give a perspective to this pertinent point, I shall quote two important observations, appeared in ‘MIMS Today’ – the first one on April 17, 2017, and the other came a year before that, on November 20, 2016, as follows:
- “A market cannot function when purchasers have limited information and, in the case of prescription drugs, pricing is a black box. Prices for drugs are clearly rising at rates that far exceed inflation and the level of any rebates or discounts offered by manufacturers,” experts opined. They further said, to hold the industry accountable, Access to Medicine Foundation (AMF)’ regularly compiles an index to rank the progress made by each large drug maker in the area of business transparency. Curiously, they concluded, ‘the number and quality of evaluations for the effectiveness of these programs are lacking.’
- “Lack of transparency of drug makers was also identified. Their policy positions, political contributions, marketing activities and memberships in associations and the associated financial support provided and board seats held were all analyzed. And only then, the ‘AMF’ reached a consensus that transparency remains low in all areas. The analysts further added, ‘there is a lack of transparency and rigor in monitoring and evaluating the access-to-medicines initiatives as well as the link between prices and development costs. Thus, ‘greater transparency from manufacturers to disclose R&D costs for drugs and evaluation of the initiatives’ is imperative.
Despite key policy makers’ favoring transparency, it remains elusive:
To illustrate this point, let me draw a recent example from the United States.
Alex M. Azar II, who is currently the Secretary of Health and Human Services of the United States, also served as president of Eli Lilly USA. LLC from 2012 to 2017 supports the need of business transparency in the pharma industry. Last year, he also emphasized:
“Putting patients in charge of this information is a key priority. But if we’re talking about trying to drive not just better outcomes, but lower costs, we also have to do a better job of informing patients about those costs. That is where our emphasis on price transparency comes in.” By naming the key health care product and service providers, Azar added, “So this administration is calling on not just doctors and hospitals, but also drug companies and pharmacies, to become more transparent about pricing and outcomes of their services and products.”
Like Secretary Azar, policy makers in several other countries, including India, are also talking and seemingly in favor of transparency in health care business systems, but it remains elusive, as we shall see below.
Do vested interests create over-powering pressure to maintain status-quo?
The above examples give some idea about the pressure created by vested interested to maintain a status-quo in this important area. Although, business transparency is a must, pharma influence on policy makers is so powerful that even a recent global resolution on the subject, had to dilute its original version in its final avatar, significantly, which I shall now focus on, as yet another vindication on this issue.
The final version of the 2019 WHA resolution made weaker in transparency:
On May 28, 2019, by a News Release in Geneva, the World Health Organization (W.H.O) announced, to help expand access to medicines for all, the72nd World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted a significant resolution on improving the transparency of markets for medicines, vaccines and other health products, globally. I repeat, this was a global effort to expand access. The assembly brought together delegates from 194 Member States of the W.H.O, including India – from 20 to 28 May 2019, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Intriguingly, as several reports highlighted, ‘the final resolution is considerably weaker than the original draft.’ Nevertheless, it still provides, at least, some measures, which have potential to make an impact on market access, globally.
What exactly was the 2019 WHA original resolution?
The original WHA draft resolution, titled ‘Roadmap for access 2019-2023 – Comprehensive support for access to medicines and vaccines’, urged the Member states the following:
- To enhance public sharing of information on actual prices paid by governments and other buyers for health products,
- Greater transparency on pharmaceutical patents, clinical trial results and other determinants of pricing along the value chain from laboratory to patient.
- Requests the WHO secretariat to support efforts towards transparency and monitor the impact of transparency on affordability and availability of health products, including the effect of differential pricing.
Highlighting that access to medicines is the key to advancing the Universal Health Coverage (UHC), the resolution aims to help the Member States:
- To make more informed decisions when purchasing health products,
- Negotiate more affordable prices
- And ultimately expand access to health products for the populations.
Palpable discomfort of large pharma associations:
The May 30, 2019 article of the Pharm Exec Magazine on this resolution, carried a headline with a query: Is it ‘A Watershed on Transparency and International Collaboration in Drug Pricing?’ The paper brought out some important points that may help explain why the 2019 original WHA resolution, could not be adopted as such. Apparent discomfort in this regard of some top industry associations, which were created and fully funded by large global drug companies, was palpable, according to this report.
For example, “the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), warned governments ‘to carefully consider potential risks to patients, particularly in less developed countries, of sharing outcomes of confidential price negotiations across countries.’ The implication is that prices in less-affluent countries could rise if the wealthier nations used international transparency to demand lower prices for their markets.”
Why couldn’t the original resolution on business transparency be adopted?
To instantiate the level of discomfort of vested interests, let me highlight some critical changes made in the 2019 in final WHA resolution at the international level, as I get from the above paper. A few of which are as follows:
|In the original draft
|Changes in the final resolution
|“Undertake measures to publicly share information on prices and reimbursement cost of medicines, vaccines, cell and gene-based therapies and other health technologies.”
|Refers to publicly sharing of information only on net prices.
|“Require the dissemination of results and costs from human subject clinical trials, regardless of outcome or whether the results will support an application for marketing approval.”
|“Take the necessary steps, as appropriate, to support dissemination of and enhanced availability of and access to aggregated results data and, if already publicly-available or voluntarily-provided, costs from human subject clinical trials regardless of outcomes or whether the results will support an application for marketing approval.”
|“Require the publication of annual reports on sales revenue, prices, units sold, and marketing costs for individual products, as well as details of the costs of each trial used to support a marketing authorization application and information on financial support from public sources used in the development of a drug.”
|Calls on the member states to “work collaboratively to improve the reporting of information by suppliers on registered health products, such as reports on sales revenues, prices, units sold, marketing costs, and subsidies and incentives.”
|Wanted the WHO Director-General to “propose a model/concept for the possible creation of a web-based tool for national governments to share information, where appropriate, on medicines prices, revenues, units sold, patent landscapes, R&D costs, the public sector investments and subsidies for R&D, marketing costs, and other related information, on a voluntary basis.”
|Diluted only to “assessing the feasibility and potential value of establishing a web-based tool to share information relevant to the transparency of markets for health products, including investments, incentives, and subsidies.”
|Proposed the creation of a forum to “develop suitable options for alternative incentive frameworks to patent or regulatory monopolies for new medicines and vaccines” that would both promote universal health coverage and adequately reward innovation.
|This point doesn’t find any place in the final resolution.
It appears, the final 2019 WHA resolution has been able to remove the key points of discomfort for the drug industry – caused by greater business transparency. It is largely due to the fact that the final pledges ‘consist largely of recommendations for voluntary action rather than the requirements for comprehensive disclosure proposed in the original draft.’
To arrive at a consensus, especially over promoting transparency in costs incurred towards R&D of drugs and health-related technologies, appeared challenging for the W.H.O Member States, inthe 72nd World Health Assemblythat concluded on May 28, 2019.Overall resolution changed the narrative from a mandatory process to a voluntary initiative. As I said before, it still prescribes several measures, which can help expand access to medicines for all, across the world.
In tandem, it also comes out clearly that barriers to business transparency to ensure better access to drugs for all, across the world, are not easy to uproot, either. Especially, when it comes to fighting against concerted efforts of powerful pharma lobby groups, other vested interests and some looney fringes.
The process of adoption of the May 2019 WHA final resolution of the world’s most relevant public health issues, is just an example.
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.