After Mollycoddling China Cracks Down on Pharma MNCs…But Why Now?

In tandem with exemplary growth in the healthcare sector, China has started confronting with some consequential hazards in form of serious regulatory violations involving, besides many others, hospitals, pharmaceutical pricing and food and drug safety, which reportedly include contaminated milk powder and rat meat sold as mutton.

A recent report indicates, there are rampant kickbacks at various stages in the healthcare delivery process. For example, hospitals get kickbacks from drug and device companies, and hospital executives give a portion of these kickbacks to their doctors, involving even the pharma MNCs.

While looking back, in 1997, China took its first healthcare reform measures to mend the earlier not so good practices, when medical services used to be considered just as any other commercial product or services in the country. As a result, staggering healthcare expenses made Chinese medical services unaffordable and difficult to access for a vast majority of the local population.

In April 2009, China, a country with over 1.35 billion population, unfolded a blueprint of a new phase of healthcare reform to provide safe, effective, convenient and affordable healthcare services to all its citizens. An incremental budgetary allocation of US$ 124 billion was made for the next three years to achieve this objective.

The core principle of healthcare reform in China:

The core principle of the new phase of Chinese healthcare reform is to provide basic health care as a “public service” to all its citizens, where more government funding and supervision will play a critical role.

This reform process will ensure availability of basic systems of public health, medical services, medical insurance and medicine supply to the entire population of China. It was also announced that priority would be given to the development of grass-root level hospitals in smaller cities and rural China. The general population will be encouraged to use these facilities for better access to affordable healthcare services. However, public non-profit hospitals would continue to remain one of the important providers of medical services in the country.

Medical Insurance and access to affordable medicines:

Chinese government has planned to set up diversified medical insurance systems to provide basic medical coverage to over 90 percent of the country’s population. In tandem, the new healthcare reform measures will ensure better availability of affordable essential medicines at all public hospitals.

Highly lucrative healthcare business destination:

New Chinese healthcare reform process carries an inherent promise of a large additional spending worth billions of US dollars every year catapulting China as one of the most lucrative healthcare markets of the world.

China’s healthcare spending has reportedly been projected to grow from US$ 357 billion in 2011 to US$1 trillion in 2020.

Consequently, this huge investment has started attracting a large number of global companies of various types, sizes and nationality competing for the right size of their respective pies of profits.

In that process, as the media reports highlight, global pharmaceutical players started fast increasing both their top-line revenue and bottom-line profits from the booming Chinese healthcare market.

Pharma MNCs growing bigger, outpacing local industry:

Another report highlighted, “60% of China’s healthcare stimulus money ended up going to non-Chinese multinationals”. Quoting a recent JP Morgan report the article indicated AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Roche, GlaxoSmithKline, Novo Nordisk, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer realized over 30 percent growth from their China operations in the early part of 2011.

With the slow down of business in Europe and in the United States, even large global pharmaceutical players like, Bayer, Sanofi, Novartis, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and many more have reportedly invested huge resources for capacity building in sales and distribution channels, local manufacturing and R&D.

Chinese Government woke-up:

Kick starting the reform process and in the face of high level of corruption, Chinese government initiated monitoring the effective management and supervision of healthcare operations of not only the medical institutions, but also the health services, together with basic medical insurance system, in good earnest.

It has been reported, though the public hospitals will receive more government funding and be allowed to charge higher fees for quality treatment, they will not be allowed to make profits through expensive medicines and treatment, which has been a common practice in China.

Violations meted with harsh measures:

Accordingly, with increased vigil in many of these areas since last couple of years, Chinese regulators have started cracking down on the culprits, who are being meted out severe and harsh punishments, consequently.

In 2012, seven public hospital directors were reportedly sent to jails for accepting kickbacks. One corrupt drug regulator was even executed along with two food-company managers involved in a poisoned milk scandal, as the report mentions.

Pharma MNCs targeted for alleged corrupt practices:

As stated above, the new healthcare reform measures include regulation of prices of medicines and medical services, together with strengthening of supervision of health insurance providers, pharmaceutical companies and retailers.

China has now reportedly targeted Multinational Companies (MNCs) for allegedly corrupt practices, including price-fixing, quality issues and consumer rights. This has forced some MNCs to defend their reputations in China where global brands often have a valuable edge over local competitors in terms of public trust.

Recently, in an effort to reduce drug prices, China has initiated probes involving 60 drug manufacturers.

According to a recent report, to make the pricing system for medicines more effective, the regulatory agencies in China are investigating the costs and prices of drug manufacturers including global pharma majors like:

  • GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK)
  • Merck & Co.
  • Novartis AG
  • Baxter International Inc.

The regulators are expected to go through the details of 27 companies for costs and 33 companies for pricing, as per the July 2, 2013 statement posted on China’s National Development and Reform Commission’s (NDRC) Evaluation Center of Drug Pricing.

The report highlights that a possible impetus for the NDRC to probe into pricing and costs of domestic and foreign drug companies was the announcement of China’s National Essential Drugs List in March, which increased the items on the list to 500 from 305.

Clampdown on government spending:

To exercise control on public expenditure towards drugs, the government has also reportedly clamped down on drug spending, placing some foreign drug makers’ products under price controls for the first time.

Since 2011, the Chinese Government has reduced the drug prices four times, including 15 percent reduction earlier in 2013, though the price reduction will be as much as 20 percent for the expensive drugs. At the same time, the government has reduced tax rebates on investments.

Mr. Chen Zhu, Health Minister of China has reportedly expressed that healthcare in China is still too expensive and there is still inadequate control over improper use of drugs in the country.

Another report indicates that Nestlé, Abbott Laboratories and Danone are under investigation in China for “monopolistic” pricing.

Crackdown on bribery and kickbacks:

An article in a similar context mentions that the “Chinese police started an investigation into the Chinese unit of the biggest pharmaceutical manufacturers of UK – GlaxoSmithKline and Senior executives at the unit are suspected of ‘economic crimes”.

On the same subject, a different news report also indicates, a senior Glaxo finance executive in Shanghai and employees in Beijing were detained as part of a corruption investigation.

Recently a Chinese Security Ministry official has reportedly said that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) executives in China have confessed to bribery and tax violations.

The same report quoting the ministry highlighted that the case against GSK involved a large number of staff and a huge sum of money over an extended period of time, with bribes offered to Chinese government officials, medical associations, hospitals and doctors to boost sales and prices. Concerned executives also used fake receipts in unspecified tax law violations.

Interestingly, earlier in 2012, Global CEO of GSK reportedly admitted that the company made “unacceptable” mistakes in “mismarketing” their antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin, which were the subject of a US$ 3 billion settlement with the Justice Department of the United States. At that time the CEO was reported to have said “very sorry” for the incident and “determined that this is never going to happen again.” 

Another very recent news highlights that currently China is investigating at least four pharma MNCs as it widens its probe. Chinese enforcers had suggested that these pharma companies were using the same tactics to boost their businesses in the country.

It is now learnt that anti-trust body of China - State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC)  has also visited  Shanghai office of UCB. 

Happening elsewhere too:

Reports of similar alleged malpractices have started surfacing from elsewhere in the world too. For example, in Denmark, a country known for low incidence of corrupt practices, a Norwegian cardiologist was reportedly charged with taking 2 million kronor, or about US$ 350,000, from Merck and Pfizer, despite the fact, Danish law prohibits doctors from accepting money directly from the drug makers. The concerned doctor allegedly used the cash to buy expensive furniture and salmon-fishing holidays in his home country.

Last year, both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States reportedly charged Pfizer and its subsidiary Wyeth for paying millions of dollars in bribes to officials, doctors and healthcare professionals in Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Italy, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Serbia during 2001-2007 in violation of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. They had also set hefty fines on the two to settle the charges.


To effectively address serious and longer term healthcare related issues of the country, the Chinese Government has already started implementing its new healthcare reform measures earnestly. Possibly to maintain equity, stay on course and uproot corrupt practices, they have now started cracking down on the violators in all seriousness, be they are from within the country or beyond its shores.

So far as the pharma MNCs are concerned, such harsh measures are being taken for alleged malpractices probably for the first time ever of this scale and that too with full media glare.

All these measures coupled with pricing pressure and gradual rise of local Chinese players, would make the Chinese market increasingly challenging to  pharma MNCs.

Some global players have already started feeling the scorching heat of tough Chinese measures. But China is too powerful a country and too lucrative a market for any entity to flex its muscle to stall the current juggernaut, at least, till the ‘Dragon’  achieves its objective of bringing down public healthcare expenditure to its expectations…Or is there more to the problem than meets the eye?

Thus, the key question emerges: 

Why has China, after mollycoddling the pharma MNCs for so many years, now started cracking down on them so hard?

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.

The ruckus over Clinical Trials in India compels Government tightening regulations before flooring gas pedal for regional leadership

The subject of Clinical Trials in India has created a huge ruckus, mainly for wide spread alleged malpractices, abuse and misuse of the fragile regulations of the country by the players in this field. The issue is not just of GCP or other clinical trial related standards but more of ethical mind-set and reported rampant exploitation of uninformed patients even in case of trial related injuries or death.

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.”

Damning report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee:

Recently the Department Related ‘Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC)’ on Health and Family Welfare presented its 59th Report of 118 pages in total on the functioning of the Indian Drug Regulator – the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) in both the houses of the Parliament on May 08, 2012.

The report begins with the following observations:

Medicines apart from their critical role in alleviating human suffering and saving lives have very sensitive and typical dimensions for a variety of reasons. They are the only commodity for which the consumers have neither a role to play nor are they able to make any informed choices except to buy and consume whatever is prescribed or dispensed to them because of the following reasons:

  • Drug regulators decide which medicines can be marketed
  • Pharmaceutical companies either produce or import drugs that they can profitably sell
  • Doctors decide which drugs and brands to prescribe
  • Consumers are totally dependent on and at the mercy of external entities to protect their interests.

In this prevailing condition, the committee felt that effective and transparent drug regulation, free from all commercial influences, is absolutely essential to ensure safety, efficacy and quality of drugs keeping just one objective in mind, i.e., welfare of patients.

Some critical findings on the Drug Approval Process:

The PSC in its report made, the following critical findings, besides others:

  • “A total of 31 new drugs were approved in the period January 2008 to October 2010 without conducting clinical trials on Indian patients.
  • Thirteen drugs scrutinized by the panel are not allowed to be sold in the United States, Canada, Britain, European Union and Australia.
  • Sufficient evidence is available on record to conclude that there is collusive nexus between drug manufacturers, some functionaries of CDSCO and some medical experts.
  • Due to the sensitive nature of clinical trials in which foreign companies are involved in a big way and a wide spectrum of ethical issues and legal angles, different aspects of clinical trials need a thorough and in-depth review.”

Proper Auditing of Clinical Trials are lacking:

It is sad that that adequate focus on the ‘Clinical Trial Registry’ and even ‘Auditing of Clinical Trials’ is currently lacking in India, which are considered so important not only to maintain the credibility of the studies, but also to demonstrate their scientific integrity and ethical values.

Unfortunately, there seems to be many loose knots in the current clinical trial policy, practices and guidelines in the country, which require to be tightened by the Government to make the system efficient and transparent in the national endeavor of establishing India as one of the most favored destinations for global clinical trials.

Health Ministry recently responded:

Facing this stark reality and pressured by the Parliament, the government has recently demonstrated its intention of tightening the loose knots in the following two critical areas:

  1. Permission to conduct Clinical Trial
  2. Compensation of the Clinical Trial victims

A. “Permission to conduct Clinical Trial in India’ – the draft notification:

In response to the prevailing conundrum, ‘The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’ of the Government of India issued a draft notification on 17th July, 2012 seeking stakeholders’ views on the ‘Permission to conduct Clinical Trial’.

The draft notification says that the licensing authority after being satisfied with the adequacy of the data submitted by the applicant in support of proposed clinical trial, shall issue permission to conduct clinical trial, subject to the following conditions:

  1. Clinical trial shall be conducted in compliance to the approved GCP Guidelines.
  2. Approval of the ‘Ethics Committee’ shall be obtained before initiation of the study.
  3. Ethical aspects of the clinical trial as described in the “Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research on Human Participants” published by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), shall be fully complied with.
  4. Clinical trial shall be registered at Clinical Trials Registry of India (CTRI) before enrolling the first patient in the study.
  5. Annual status report on clinical trial viz. ongoing or completed to be communicated to the said Licensing Authority.
  6. Any ‘Suspected Unexpected Serious Adverse Reaction (SUSAR)’ occurring during clinical trial shall be communicated within fourteen calendar days to the Licensing Authority and to the other investigator(s) participating in the study.
  7. In case of study related injury or death, the applicant will provide complete medical care, as well as, compensation for the injury or death and statement to this effect shall be incorporated in the Informed Consent Document. The details of compensation provided shall also be intimated to the licensing authority.
  8. The premises of sponsor/Clinical Research Organization (CRO) and clinical trial sites shall be open to inspection by the officer of Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), who may be accompanied by an officer of the concerned ‘State Drug Control Authority’ to verify compliance to the requirements of Schedule Y, GCP guidelines and other applicable regulation.
  9. The sponsor/ CRO, investigators shall allow officers of CDSCO who may be accompanied by an officer of the concerned ‘State Drug Control Authority’, to enter with or without prior notice, any premises of sponsor/ CRO, clinical trial site to inspect, search and seize any record, data, document, books, investigational drugs etc. related to clinical trials and provide adequate replies to any queries raised by the inspecting authority in relation to the conduct of clinical trial.

This area of the clinical trial regulations will be finalized after taking into consideration of all the comments received from the stakeholders within the specified period.

B. ‘Compensation of the Clinical Trial victims’:

To address the pressing issues in this area Central Drugs Control Organization (CDSCO) in August 3, 2012, published an interim “GUIDELINES FOR DETERMINING QUANTUM OF FINANCIAL COMPENSATION TO BE PAID IN CASE OF CLINICAL TRIAL RELATED INJURY OR DEATH”

The document articulates as follows:

Presently there is no specific provision under Drugs and Cosmetics Rules for payment of compensation in case of clinical trial related injury or death of the subject. However, the Good Clinical Practice (GCP) Guidelines for Clinical Trials of India under para 2.4.7 provides that the research subject who suffers physical injury as a result of their participation in clinical trials are entitled to financial or other assistance to compensate them equitably for any temporary or permanent impairment or disability subject to confirmation from Ethics Committee. In case of death, their dependents are entitled to material compensation. Guidelines further provide that it is the obligation of the sponsor to pay the compensation.

Such concerns were also raised in the Parliament and other forums regarding payment of compensation in the cases of injury or death, related to clinical trials.

CDSCO’s interim guidelines now prescribe an interesting formula, which will be used to arrive at the financial compensation for all clinical trial related injuries and deaths.

To assess right compensation for clinical trial related injuries or deaths following parameters have been mooted in the document:

  • Age of the deceased
  • Income of the deceased
  • Seriousness and severity of the disease, the subject was suffering at the time of his/her participation into the trial.
  • Percentage of permanent disability.

Prior to the above new interim guidelines of the CDSCO, there was no standardization for the financial compensation either for clinical trial injuries or for that matter even death. In the past, such compensation was expected to be decided by the ‘Ethics Committee’ on case to case basis.

As stated above, the above formula has been indicated to be an interim measure before the final notification comes into force after taking into consideration all stakeholders’ comments and suggestions on this very important subject.

Drawing a comparison with China:

Driven by the stellar economic growth together with its booming pharmaceutical industry have enabled China to position itself as an emerging hub for global clinical trials. Following are some examples of the key growth drivers in the clinical research space of China:

  • A large diverse treatment naive patient population
  • Significant cost arbitrage
  • Recent improvements in the regulatory standards
  • Reverse brain drain of Chinese-born scientists educated in the west
  • Changing disease profile
  • Incentives to conduct clinical research in the country

However, linguistic and cultural barriers that affect patient reporting, enrollment and other medical practices in China could work as major barriers to the growth of Chinese clinical trial sector.

Clinical Trials: A ‘China – India’ comparison

It has already been reported  that India is ahead of China as most favored destination for global clinical trials, although the latter is quite close and breathing on the neck of India and could well even zoom past the former, if appropriate robust regulations and their effective implementation are still not ensured in India.

I. Majority of the Top 10 Pharma Companies conduct higher number of trials in India

Sr. No. Company

Clinical Trials in India

Clinical Trials in China

Astra Zeneca








Eli Lilly


































(Source:, 26 Oct 2007)

II. India leads China and Russia in Cardiology and Diabetes trials

Therapy India (%) China (%) Russia (%)
Cardiology 5.38 4.93 4.48
Diabetes 3.05 2.09 2.65
Neurology 0.90 0.90 3.62
Oncology 1.59 1.01 2.32

With the highest number of diabetic patients in the World and a very large population of patients with cardiovascular disorders, India has the potential to be the destination of choice for clinical trials in these two therapy areas, as we move on.

(Source:, 26 Oct 2007)

III. India has a greater % of phase II and III trials while China has more of Phase I and IV

Clinical Trials in India

Clinical Trials in China

Phase I


Phase I


Phase II


Phase II


Phase III


Phase II


Phase IV


Phase IV


(Source:, 26 Oct 2007)

IV. Of the total Industry sponsored trials only 3.5% are carried out in India and 2.63% in China


Global Trials

India + China







Eli Lilly




























India 3.50%
China 2.63%
Global 93.87%

India and China’s share in the Industry sponsored Global clinical trial market is miniscule


Overall increasing trend of Clinical Trials Initiated in India:

The following table will substantiate the above point:


No. Of Clinical Trials























(Source: U.S. NIH, Pharmexcil Research)

India has the potential to accelerate its pace of growth significantly:

If robust regulatory measures are put in place, addressing serious concerns on the inadequacy of clinical trial regulations in India, together with uniform requirements for informed patients’ consent and appropriate ethics review, global pharmaceutical majors can be easily attracted to India for several reasons like:

  1. Technically competent and English speaking workforce,
  2. Patient availability and huge pool of naive patients
  3. Low costs and an improving drug-control system.

Thus, quite a number of criteria, as stated above, favor India to establish itself as a global hub for clinical research. Besides, availability of a number of government-funded medical and pharmaceutical institutions with state-of-the-art facilities could be very useful for mufti-centered clinical trials in the country.

Moreover, the cost to conduct a trial in India is lower by almost 50% – 75% than in the United States or in the EU. In addition, a good communication link favors quick recruitment of patients and faster regulatory approvals. Thus, clinical trials in India could be concluded faster, offering a sharp cutting edge for effective competition.

Due to all these reasons, India is gradually attracting more collaborative contract clinical research proposals in the country. Even many global Clinical Research Organizations (CRO) have already started establishing their set up in India. This pace can be accelerated significantly with the regulatory measures, as stated above.


Clinical trials are the core of research-based pharmaceutical industry. No new drug can come into the market without clinical trials, which involve both potential benefits and risks to the participants. All clinical trials are conducted with the primary aim of bringing to patients new medicines with a favorable benefit–risk ratio.

Global clinical trials being relatively new to India, no wonder there are several misconceptions on the subject. The companies conducting research need to proactively publicize their commitment to protecting the rights, safety and well-being of trial participants.

All concerned must ensure that the proposals for clinical trials are approved by the government regulatory authorities before commencement and the trials must strictly follow the prescribed norms and procedures. For Phase I-IV human trials, the rights and privileges of the participants must be explained and the trials should commence only after their informed consent. The regulatory authorities, at the same time, should also ensure that any attempt of shortcuts or to bend the system by any means is met with severe consequences.

Although the Ministry of Health has already started initiating some action, as stated above, there is an urgent need for the players in this field to reassure the public, in general, about the high ethical standards that the pharmaceutical companies and Clinical Research Organizations require to comply with and continuously practice, while conducting clinical research.

It is therefore, high time for the Government to tighten the loose knots of the Clinical Trial regulations in the country before flooring the gas pedal to help India surging ahead as a major hub in the clinical trials space of the world, significantly distancing itself from China.

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.