Ensuring ease of doing any ethical business activity in India, is a new focus area of the Government and is very rightly so. Creating ease of doing ethical pharma business too, falls under this overall national objective.
In this article, restricting myself to the drug sector, I shall deliberate on various aspects, which are now being considered by the pharma industry, related to the ‘ease of doing pharma business in India’. My discussion would cover all subsets of pharma players, irrespective of whether they fall under Multinational (MNC) or purely homegrown Indian companies, with different scales of operations – large, medium, small, or micro.
To help the Government facilitating the ‘‘ease of doing pharma business in India’, it is just not enough to make the business models for all subsets of the Indian pharma sector looking ethical, conforming to all relevant laws, policies, rules and norms. Each pharma player need also to maintain an ongoing strict internal vigil, religiously, to ensure that the requirements of high quality clinical development, manufacturing and selling practices for effective, safe and rational medicines, are properly understood and strictly followed by all the employees within the organization.
A Kaleidoscopic View:
The above situation is something that ought to happen, as the Government keeps striving to improve the ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in India. However, while looking through a Kaleidoscope, as it were, the colors of industry expectations in this area keep changing rapidly, as the new contentious issues keep emerging. Consequently, the ground reality of assessing the same, by a large section of the pharma players in India, seems to veer only around different types of just self-serving demands, expecting those to act as a powerful tailwind pushing their business interests rapidly forward.
Such expectations keep surfacing, rather frequently, from all the subsets of the pharma industry, be they MNCs and their trade associations or the Companies of purely Indian origin and their trade bodies. The accusation to the Government pertaining to all these issues, is a common one: ‘Where is the ease of doing pharma business in India?’
Citing even some recent incidents, they are voicing with equal gusto, that the root causes of all these problems lie miles outside the pharma industry. The causative factor, they indicate, is rooted at the very doorsteps of the Government, as its ministries initiate tough action to root out corruption in the pharma industry as concurrent measures, disturbing their business comfort zones, and upsetting the apple carts.
The Government has its task cut out:
I hasten to add that I have no intention to paint it as a confrontation between the Government and the pharma industry, in any way. The Government is also facing the brunt from the various stakeholders, relentlessly, for its utter negligence of public health care, and public expenditure over it.
The impact of this Government indifference, though also comes on the patients, the industry does not seem to have much to crib over it as a direct impediment to the ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in India.
Probably as a diversionary tactic, the industry keeps using this critical Government inaction in the hope of diverting the public, or media attention from its own alleged business malpractices, even at a time when these are being covered both by the national and international media, regularly. Nevertheless, the industry credibility on these issues, seems to have started waning fast, as the genie is out of the bottle.
A common punching bag of all industry dissatisfaction on the Government:
It is worth noting that despite some key differences between the MNC and Indian pharma companies, which I shall discuss later, the common punching bag of the industry dissatisfaction on various Government decisions, always has been the lack of ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in the country.
This discontentment may be well justified. I have no qualms about it. However, when this dissatisfaction gets tagged with some recent Government action, taken to protect public health interests and does not have much to do with the ‘ease of doing ethical pharma business’, many eyebrows are obviously raised.
Against some of these critical patient-centric actions, the industry continues to express its annoyance in unison, while for some other Government decisions, it speaks in different voices – some are happy ones, and the others are not so. However, the common thread of expression of all such dissatisfactions is always linked with the lack of ‘ease of doing business’ in India.
A. Where the pharma Industry in India speaks in unison:
I shall now give two major examples of the key Government decisions, that have irked the entire pharma industry immensely, and makes it voicing that those Government actions grossly violate the fundamental requirements of its smooth running of business. Is that fair? Let me analyze that below with these two examples:
1. Drug price control:
The industry, by and large, opines that individual drug company should be allowed to decide the way it would price any drug, as the market forces, especially for generic drugs, would determine its price.
Indian Parliament, the Supreme Court of India, the Government in power at different times, most of the independent experts and the NGOs, on the contrary, consider drug price control is necessary in India, especially for essential drugs. It makes high quality essential medicines affordable and accessible to the general population.
National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) has also announced and explained that the competition does not work on controlling prices for pharma products, where the consumers are not the decision makers. The key prescribing decision makers for the patients are the doctors, who are mostly and unethically influenced by the drug companies having vested interest in making such decisions. This unholy nexus has been widely alleged globally, and also established through umpteen number of studies of high credibility.
Nevertheless, the doctors, from across the globe, including in India, have long disputed that any payments, if and when they receive from pharmaceutical companies, have no relationship to how they prescribe drugs.
A March 17, 2016 study of ProPublica has conclusively established that: “The more money doctors receive from drug and medical device companies, the more brand-name drugs they tend to prescribe. Even a meal can make a difference.” This study may be in the context of the Unites States, but India in this in this regard is no exception, as captured even in the parliamentary Committee reports.
Thus, conceding to high voltage pharma advocacy, made on the pretext of ‘encouraging innovation’ and ‘ease of doing business in India’, if any Government contemplates the abolition of drug price control in India is, it would make not just essential drugs inaccessible to a large section of society, but encourage blatant corrupt practices. This caution has come, besides many others, also from a Parliamentary Committee report, unambiguously. Incidentally, the present Government too strongly speaks against corruption, in any form.
Thus, I reckon, if the industry believes that the price control of essential drugs, which are for public health interest, goes against ease of doing pharma business in India, so be it.
2. Manufacturing and selling of irrational FDCs:
A Fixed Dose Combination (FDC) drug may appear irrational to drug regulators and well-qualified experts, after necessary scientific scrutiny, for various reasons. This may happen, primarily because of the following reasons:
- When the medical rationale of the FDC along with the ingredient details, submitted to the regulatory authority for marketing approval, are considered scientifically inappropriate.
- When the evolving medical science establishes the irrationality of the FDC after a period of time.
- When the analysis of ‘Adverse Drug Event’ reports from the ongoing Pharmacovigilance studies signals a red alert.
- Widespread uncontrolled misuse or abuse of FDCs, where the consumers’ health risks far outweigh the drug benefits, as provided in the drugs Act, for public health interest.
- Some regulatory loopholes were misused by the drug manufacturers in the past to get the irrational FDCs approved by the State Drug Authorities, violating the new FDC regulatory approval Policy.
Any irrational FDC so identified by the drug regulators and experts, by putting a system of scrutiny in place, must be banned forthwith, in public health interest. There should not be any scope of negotiation with drug manufacturer to make the bans effective.
Incidentally, realizing the gravity of public health risks posed by irrational FDCs, even the NPPA has reportedly decided to review afresh all new applications for price fixations of FDC and examine their safety and efficacy profile.
Moving towards this direction, the NPPA Chairman, has reportedly sent back more than 200 applications for price fixation of FDCs, instructing the concerned manufacturing and marketing companies to apply again with a declaration that their formulations are not “irrational.” It was also reported that the price regulator has also brought under the lens third-party drug makers and pharma companies that outsource to them, to check illegal sales of irrational FDCs and spurious drugs.
Two key questions being raised now:
Despite all these, the industry keeps repeating, especially, the following two questions, which are worth looking at, one by one:
1. Why is the ban now?
I discussed the issue of FDC ban in my previous article in this Blog on March 21, 2016 titled, “The Recent Ban On Irrational FDCs: History Repeats Itself”.
In the above article, I also argued that large section of the industry and its associations are protesting against the Government ban of 344 irrational FDCs, and questioning vigorously, even outside the Delhi High Court – ‘why is the ban now?’
The point ‘why now’ is absolutely irrelevant, as not taking any action ever, against a wrong doing ignored over a long period time for whatever reasons, does not confer any regulatory legitimacy to an irrational FDC formulation to be considered as a rational one for all time to come, and thereby, exposing patients to serious health risks, knowingly.
2. Why is this ban so sudden, and in some cases after decades?
Sudden banning of drugs, which are in the market for a long time, is not a recent Indian phenomenon in India. In 2011, according to a report, in the world’s largest pharma market – the United States, the FDA banned 500 prescription drugs that had been on the market and working for decades. USFDA ban also happened suddenly, and that includes cough syrups too. Thus, it is intriguing, why is this fuss created by the Industry in India now?
In the midst of it, one odd, knee-jerk, apparently ‘spoon-fed’ and ill-informed editorial in some Indian business daily, raises more questions about its real intent, rather than help finding answers to the poorly sketched problems.
I would hope, the Government would stay firm and be able to convince the Delhi High Court today, i.e. on March 28, 2016, with its robust data-based arguments, accordingly.
Be that as it may, in my perspective, if the industry still believes that bans of irrational FDCs to protect public health interest, as decided by the independent experts after long and structured deliberations, would go against ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in India, so be it.
B. Where the pharma industry in India speaks in different voices:
As stated above, there are several other key areas, where the MNC and Indian Pharma players have sharp differences in their perspectives. Despite these differences, the aggrieved section does not even blink a bit to attribute those Government actions to the lack of ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in the country.
In this area, I shall give just the following three examples:
1. The Patents Act:
MNCs say that section 3 (d) of the Indian Patents Act 2005, which is aimed at curbing patent ever-greening or frivolous inventions, is against the ease of doing business in India. However, the Indian Pharma players, do not think so, at all. Similar disagreement also exists in other critical areas too, such as, ‘Data Exclusivity (DE)’ and ‘Compulsory Licensing (CL)’.
Thus, in my opinion, if some ‘public health interest’ related provisions of the robust Indian Intellectual Property (IP) Act, such as, section 3 (d), DE and CL, are considered as going against the ‘ease of doing pharma business in India’ by the MNCs, so be it.
2. Mandatory Uniform Code of Pharma Marketing Practices (UCPMP):
Need to have a mandatory UCPMP, though, is reportedly supported by the MNCs, Indian pharma players do not seem to be quite in sync with this idea. I am not sure, whether the delay in the announcement of mandatory UCPMP, almost in every 3 months, has any coincidence with it or not. However, the reality is, no one still knows clearly, when would it definitely come, if at all.
Media reports on pharma MNC support to mandatory UCPMP, and repeated reiteration that its members in India rigidly follow the IFPMA Code of Marketing Practices, though commendable, seem to grossly lack in credibility.
Interestingly, despite the existence of this code and high-decibel vouch for its rigid conformance, maximum number of MNCs have been fined billions of dollars, by the Government in various countries, for alleged gross marketing and other business malpractices. It has been happening over a long period of time, and is being reported by the international media, frequently.
What is really happening, especially, on the so called total support of ethical marketing practices by the MNCs? Are they trying to create just good optics by craftily framing and supporting such showpiece codes, and blatantly defying these to achieve self-serving goals? The voice gets shriller, even when they are being levied hefty fines, after getting caught red handed, as reported by the global media? I guess, the future would ultimately unfold the reality. But would it, at all?
The Indian Scenario:
Even in India, such alleged marketing malpractices involving even a top pharma MNC have often been reported by the media. Just to illustrate, “Prescribe a drug maker’s medicine and get a free vacation”, reported a news article. There are several other similar reports too. Hence, the credibility of pharma MNC statements regarding strict conformance to ethical marketing codes, ably formulated by the well-known pharma trade associations, such as, IFPMA, appears to be very low, if exists at all.
The well-reputed medical Journal BMJ in one of its articles titled, “Corruption ruins the doctor-patient relationship in India”, published on May 8, 2014, expressed serious concern on this issue.
It concluded that corruption, kickbacks and the nexus between doctors and pharmaceutical firms are rampant India. This eventually prompted the BMJ, in June 2014, to launch a campaign reportedly called ‘Corruption in Medicine’.
On this issue, way back in May 08, 2012, even the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare in its 58th Report, placed before the Parliament on May 08, 2012, expressed its serious concern.
Indian lawmakers, recommended in the report that the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) should take decisive action, without further delay, in making the UCPMP mandatory, so that effective checks could be ensured on ‘huge promotional costs’ and the resultant add-on impact on medicine prices. Unfortunately, despite a change in the Government in 2014, UCPMP has still not been mandatory.
It is anybody’s guess, despite all these reports, what type of external pressure, if at all, the DoP is still facing to put in place a robust mandatory UCPMP with strong deterrent measures.
Under this backdrop, in my view, if mandatory UCPMP having enough teeth, to curb ongoing blatant marketing malpractices to protect patients’ health interest in India, is considered by any as going against the ‘ease of doing pharma business in India’, so be it.
3. Drug manufacturing quality:
Enough discussions have already been made on import ban of USFDA from over 45 drug manufacturing facilities of Indian Companies, of all sizes and scale of operations, on the ground of drug quality standards. USFDA considered drugs manufactured in those banned facilities are unsafe for the consumption of American patients. Some other foreign drug regulators, from the developed countries, have also taken similar action.
Taking advantage of this development, it was reported that attempts are indirectly being made to establish that MNC marketed generic drugs are superior to similar ones, manufactured even by the large Indian drug producers.
The fact, apparently, is quite different. MNCs operating in India has not come under the USFDA scanner in this regard as much, probably not because of their far superior drug manufacturing quality standards in India, as compared to even the best of their Indian counterparts. I reckon, it is mainly because, very few MNC drug manufacturing facilities in India export India manufactured drugs for consumption in the United States.
It may not, therefore, make any real sense to conclude that MNC marketed generic drugs in India, either manufactured my themselves or under loan & license or under a third party, are generally better in quality than the similar ones manufactured even by the large Indian manufacturers.
In any case, I feel that there is a huge scope for Indian drug regulators to ensure uniformly high drug quality standards. This is necessary for Indian patients’ health and safety. There also should be stringent regular quality audits in all drug manufacturing facilities in India, where non-conformance with prescribed standards would attract serious punitive measures. The Union Ministry of Health, together with the State Governments would require increasing the number of auditors accordingly.
However, the reality is, many Indian drug manufacturers have expressed that maintaining stricter drug manufacturing standards (cGMP) would involve huge expenditure, which they will not be able to afford. Consequently, this would go against the ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in India.
Again, in my view, if the stringent regulatory requirements for maintaining high drug manufacturing standards in India to protect public health interest, is considered as going against the ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in India, so be it.
Improving ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in India is an absolute necessity, just as all other businesses. Pharma sector deserves it very badly too, as it has been experiencing excruciating delay in multiple regulatory clearances. Single window clearances of all applications, with a much greater sense of urgency, without bureaucratic red tapes and avoiding other unnecessary delays, is certainly the way forward for India. It would require urgent policy reforms, maintaining a right balance between, public, consumers and business interests.
Pharma sector is not all villain, either, by any yardstick. It is instrumental in saving and improving the quality of lives of so many people across the globe, since a very long time, with its both innovative and generic medicines. All must acknowledge it, and the Government does it too, openly, several times.
That said, the space of focus of the pharma industry appears to be getting increasingly narrowed down to more of its self-serving acts, and in their hard selling, through hugely expensive advocacy campaigns, even at the huge cost of attracting frequent self-defeating scathing criticisms, across the world.
At the same time, the Governments in different times hugely disappointed its citizens, in charting a clear road map for quality and affordable health care for all in India, along with appropriate budgetary allocations and policy reforms, and thereafter, in its implantation with military precision.
However, that doesn’t mean, in any way, while facilitating ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in India, the Government would turn a blind eye on the rapidly breeding corruption in the pharma business practices, and give in to unjustified industry muscle-flexing, sacrificing the health interest of its citizens in the country.
While looking through this Kaleidoscope, it appears to me, if the pharma sector considers the appropriate Government actions to protect public health interest, against the unacceptable industry practices, would also go against the ‘ease of doing pharma business’ in India… Well, so be it.
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.