‘Big Pharma’ now seems to be desperately trying to gain the long lost high moral ground by pushing hard its gigantic image makeover juggernaut, maintaining a strong pitch on the relevance of stringent Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) in the lives of the patients. However, even more alert media, by reporting a number of unethical and fraudulent activities of some of its constituents on the ground, is taking much of the steam out of it. As a result, the pace of erosion of all important pharma credibility is fast accelerating.
Innovation – A critical need for any science-based business:
Innovation, which eventually leads to the issue of IPR, is generally regarded as extremely important to meet the unmet needs of patients in the battle against diseases of all types, especially the dreaded ones. Thus, it has always been considered as the bedrock of the global pharmaceutical industry. As we all know, even the cheaper generic drugs originate from off-patent innovative medicines.
At the same time, it is equally important to realize that just as the pharmaceutical or life-science businesses, innovation is critical for any other science based businesses too, such as IT, Automobile, Aviation, besides many others. Since many centuries, even when there were no ‘Patents Act’ anywhere in the world, leave aside robust ones, pharmaceutical industry has been predominantly growing through innovation and will keep becoming larger and larger through the same process, acrimonious debate over stringent IPR regime not withstanding.
India has also amply demonstrated its belief that innovation needs to be encouraged and protected with a well-balanced Intellectual Property regime in the country, when it became a member of the World Trade Organization and a part of the TRIPS Agreement, as I had discussed in my earlier blog post.
Simultaneously, a recent research report is worth noting, as well. The study reveals, though the pharmaceutical companies in the United States, since mid 2000, have spent around US$ 50 billion every year to discover new drugs, they have very rarely been able to invent something, which can be called significant improvement over already existing ones. This is indeed a matter of great concern, just as a very ‘stringent IP regime’ prompts ‘evergreening’ of patents, adversely impacting the patients’ health interest.
Though innovation is much needed, obscene pricing of many patented drugs is limiting their access to majority of the world population. On top of that, business malpractices net of fines, wherever caught, are adding to the cost of medicines significantly.
Key reasons for acceleration of credibility erosion:
I reckon, following are the three main factors accelerating credibility erosion of pharma in general and Big Pharma in particular:
- Large scale reported business malpractices affecting patients’ health interest
- Very high prices of patented medicines in general, adversely impacting patients’ access and cost of treatment
- Attempts to influence IP laws of many countries for vested interests
1. Accelerating credibility erosion due to business malpractices:
In the pharmaceutical sector across the world, including India, the Marketing and Clinical Trial (CT) practices have still remained very contentious issues, despite many attempts of so called ‘self-regulation’ by the industry associations. Incessant complaints as reported by the media, judicial fines and settlements for fraudulent practices of some important pharma players leave no breather to anyone.
To illustrate the point, let me quote below a few recent examples:
- In March 2014, the antitrust regulator of Italy reportedly fined two Swiss drug majors, Novartis and Roche 182.5 million euros (U$ 251 million) for allegedly blocking distribution of Roche’s Avastin cancer drug in favor of a more expensive drug Lucentis that the two companies market jointly for an eye disorder. According to the Italian regulator Avastin costs up to 81 euros, against around 900 euros for Lucentis. Out of the total amount, Novartis would require to pay 92 million euros and Roche 90.5 million euros. Roche’s Genentech unit and Novartis had developed Lucentis. Roche markets the drug in the United States, while Novartis sells it in the rest of the world. Quoting the Italian regulator, the report says that the said practices cost Italy’s health system more than 45 million euros in 2012 alone, with possible future costs of more than 600 million euros a year.
- Just before this, in the same month of March 2014, it was reported that a German court had fined 28 million euro (US$ 39 million) to the French pharma major Sanofi and convicted two of its former employees on bribery charges. An investigation of those former employees of Sanofi unearthed that they had made illicit payments to get more orders from pharma dealer.
- In November 2013, Teva Pharmaceutical reportedly said that an internal investigation turned up suspect practices in countries ranging from Latin America to Russia.
- In May 2013, Sanofi was reportedly fined US$ 52.8 Million by the French competition regulator for trying to limit sales of generic versions of the company’s Plavix.
- In August 2012, Pfizer Inc. was reportedly fined US$ 60.2 million by the US Securities and Exchange Commission to settle a federal investigation on alleged bribing overseas doctors and other health officials to prescribe medicines.
- In July 2012, GlaxoSmithKline was reportedly fined US$ 3 bn in the United States after admitting to bribing doctors and encouraging the prescription of unsuitable antidepressants to children. According to the report, the company encouraged sales reps in the US to ‘mis-sell’ three drugs to doctors and lavished hospitality and kickbacks on those who agreed to write extra prescriptions, including trips to resorts in Bermuda, Jamaica and California.
- In April 2012, a judge in Arkansas, US, reportedly fined Johnson & Johnson and a subsidiary more than US$1.2 billion after a jury found that the companies had minimized or concealed the dangers associated with an antipsychotic drug.
- Not so long ago, after regulatory authorities in China cracked down on GlaxoSmithKline for allegedly bribing of US$490 million to Chinese doctors through travel agencies, whistleblower accusations reverberated spanning across several pharma MNCs, including Sanofi. The company reportedly paid ¥1.7 million (US$277,000) in bribes to 503 doctors around the country, forking over ¥80 to doctors each time a patient bought its products.
All these are not new phenomena. For example, In the area of Clinical Trial, an investigation by the German magazine Der Spiegel reportedly uncovered in May, 2013 that erstwhile international conglomerates such as Bayer, Hoechst (now belongs to Sanofi), Roche, Schering (now belongs to Bayer) and Sandoz (now belongs to Novartis) carried out more than 600 tests on over 50,000 patients, mostly without their knowledge, at hospitals and clinics in the former Communist state. The companies were said to have paid the regime the equivalent of €400,000 per test.
Compared to the actions now being taken by the law enforcers overseas, India has shown a rather lackadaisical attitude in these areas, as on date. It is astonishing that unlike even China, no pharmaceutical company has been investigated thoroughly and hauled up by the government for alleged bribery and other serious allegations of corrupt practices.
However, frequent reporting by Indian media has now triggered a debate in the country on the subject. It has been reported that a related Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is now pending before the Supreme Court for hearing in the near future. It is worth noting that in 2010, ‘The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health’ also had expressed its deep concern by stating that the “evil practice” of inducement of doctors by the pharma companies is continuing unabated as the revised guidelines of the Medical Council of India (MCI) have no jurisdiction over the pharma industry. The Government, so far, has shown no active interest in this area, either.
In an article titled, “Healthcare industry is a rip-off”, published in a leading business daily of India, states as follows:
“Unethical drug promotion is an emerging threat for society. The Government provides few checks and balances on drug promotion.”
In the drug manufacturing quality area, USFDA and MHRA (UK) has recently announced a number of ‘Import Bans’ for drugs manufactured in some facilities of Ranbaxy and Wockhardt, as those medicines could compromise with the drug safety concerns of the patients in the US and UK. Even as recent as in late March 2014, the USFDA has reportedly issued a warning letter to another domestic drug maker USV Ltd on data integrity-related violations in good manufacturing practices occurred at the company’s Mumbai facility. This is indeed a cause of added concern.
Similarly, in the Clinical Trial area of India, responding to a PIL, the Supreme Court of the country and separately the Parliamentary Standing Committee also had indicted the drug regulator. The Committee in its report had even mentioned about a nexus existing between the drug regulator and the industry in this area.
2. Accelerating credibility erosion due to high patented drugs pricing:
On this subject, another March 2014 report brings to the fore the problems associated with access to affordable newer medicines, which goes far beyond India, covering even the wealthiest economies of the world.
The report re-emphasizes that the monthly costs of many cancer drugs now exceed US$ 10,000 to even US$ 30,000. Recently Gilead Sciences fixed the price of a breakthrough drug for hepatitis C at US$ 84,000 for a 12- week treatment, inviting the wrath of many, across the world.
Why is the drug price so important?
The issue of pricing of patented drugs is now a cause of concern even in the developed countries of the world, though the subject is more critical in India. According to a 2012 study of IMS Consulting Group, drugs are the biggest component of expenditure in the total Out Of Pocket (OOP) spend on healthcare, as follows:
|Outpatient/Outside Hospital (%)
Probably for the same reason, recently German legislators have reportedly voted to continue until the end of 2017 the price freeze on reimbursed drugs, which was introduced in August 2010 and originally set to expire at end of 2013.
However in India, only some sporadic measures, like the Drug Price Control Order (DPCO 2013) for essential drugs featuring in the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM 2011), that covers just around 18 percent of the total domestic pharmaceutical market, have been taken. On top of this, unlike many other countries, there is no negotiation on price fixation for high cost patented drugs.
If caught, insignificant fine as compared to total profit accrued, has no impact:
Many stakeholders, therefore, question the business practices of especially those players who get exposed, as they are caught and fined by the judiciary and the regulatory authorities.
Do such companies prioritize high profits ahead of patients’ lives, creating a situation for only those with deep pockets or a good health insurance cover to have access to the patented medicines, and the rest of the world goes without?
It is also no surprise that highly secretive and well hyped so called “Patient Access Programs” of many of these companies, are considered by many no more than a sham and a façade to justify the high prices.
3. Accelerating credibility erosion due to unreasonable IP related demands:
Despite some well-justified measures taken by countries like, India in the IP area, the US and to a great extent extent Europe and Japan, continuously pressured by the powerful pharma lobby groups, are still pushing hard to broaden the IP protections around the globe through various Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). At the same time, Big Pharma lobbyists are reportedly trying to compel various governments to enact IP laws, which would suit their business interest at the cost of patients.
Fortunately, many stakeholders, including media, have started raising their voices against such strong-arm tactics, further fueling the credibility erosion of Big Pharma.
In the midst of all these, patients are indeed caught in a precarious situation, sandwiched between unethical practices of many large pharma players and very high prices of the available life saving patented medicines, beyond the reach of majority of the global population.
That said, accelerating credibility erosion of pharma in general and the Big Pharma in particular could possibly lead to a stage, where it will indeed be challenging for them to win hearts and minds of the stakeholders without vulgar display or surreptitious use of the money power.
To avoid all these, saner voices that are now being heard within the Big Pharma constituents should hopefully prevail, creating a win-win situation for all, not by using fear of sanctions as the key in various interactions, not even raising the so called ‘trump card of innovation’ at the drop of a hat and definitely by jettisoning long nurtured repulsive arrogance together with much reported skulduggery, for patients’ sake.
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.