The Professor, Counterfeit Drugs, CDA Bill and the New Health Minister

Just a couple of days ago, I met Professor Sam Gupta, an American professor of Indian origin. Prof. Gupta has specialized in nuclear medicine and hails from a well reputed North American University. Dr. Gupta, like many others, had left the shores of India decades ago when he was just a student. During his long arduous journey on the beaten path of life, he almost lost contacts with his roots in India.
An incident that triggered intense passion in Prof. Gupta:

When I met him just the other day, I heard him passionately speaking about the menace of substandard and counterfeit medicines, in the world in general and India, in particular. He was reminiscing how had he decided to wage a war, as it were, against this injustice against humanity. Despite having a nuclear medicine background, Prof. Gupta is fighting this crusade against evil with an intense passion, as intense as it could possibly be.

The professor still teaches and researches on nuclear medicine in North America… but he spends all his balance time driven by this passion, to bring home some change in the uncertain treatment environment, involving well being of a large number of patients, especially in India. What then triggered this ‘burning desire’ in the mind of a seemingly quite and extremely polite Prof. Gupta?

Not a very long ago, a person, very dear and near to the professor, while visiting India became a tragic victim of a counterfeit medicine. Professor lost his dear one, in India. Intense sadness due to loss of this otherwise healthy individual, that too so suddenly, got converted into a potent rage in him… and… the rage into a passion… a passion to stop the menace of substandard and counterfeit medicines, in whatever way he possibly can.

Professor’s dear one is not the sole victim of spurious, substandard and counterfeit medicines in India. Such tragedy strikes many hundreds and thousands of Indians every year. We come to know very seldom and very little about such instances, for various reasons. Real reasons of most of these tragic deaths, usually remain unknown to the civil society, at large… but the ‘merchants of death’ keep making fast bucks with their cash counters constantly ringing. Heart rending cries for loss of human lives, because of their mischief, do not mean anything to them. To the regulators, ironically, price of medicines appears to be more important than the quality of medicines.

Minimum acceptable quality standards for medicines:

Though medicines should offer and promise maximum possible quality standards, in India we are satisfied with the ‘minimum acceptable quality standards’ even for medicines and of varying degree of quality, just as any other commodities. It is not unknown to many that in India, we have broadly two types of quality – one type of quality exists for the domestic consumption and use and the other type of quality is for people living outside India and mainly in the western world, which is termed as ‘exports quality’. ‘Exports quality’ products attract a premium in India to the common man, even in the 21st. century.

Varying degree of acceptable drug quality in India:

Just like ‘domestic’ and ‘exports’ quality, for medicines we have many acceptable quality standards, in India: GMP quality, WHO GMP quality, US-FDA quality just to name a few. It appears that our regulators are just satisfied in ensuring availability of cheaper priced medicines with ‘minimum acceptable’ or ‘varying’ quality standards. If not, why is there no concerted effort by the drug regulator to strike at the root cause of proliferation of substandard and counterfeit medicines in India? When we see so many regulators working so well to ensure ‘affordability’ of medicines, why is the drug regulator failing to stop proliferation of substandard and counterfeit medicines in the country, in a systematic way? Who is accountable, when a patient takes affordable medicines of poor quality and suffer from undesirable consequences? Some estimates indicate that at least 10% of medicines produced in India are substandard.

Some good initiatives were implemented and some equally good initiatives were stalled – why?

A major amendment in the Drugs & Cosmetics Act, 1940, proposed in October 2007 and enacted into a law in 2008, has increased the minimum jail term for counterfeit drug offenders from 5 to 10 years and the minimum fine for such offenses increased from Rs. 10,000 (about U.S$ 220) to Rs. 10 lakh (about U.S$ 22,000).

However, the amendment of the Drugs & Cosmetics Act, 1940 to create a Central Drug Authority (CDA) has not seen the light of the day, as yet, due to various vested interests. The CDA, if created, would have been responsible for the entire drug regulatory mechanism in India including all marketing approvals and uniform quality standards of medicines, across the country.

What happens today for manufacturing and marketing approval of drugs in India?

Currently, although the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) gives marketing approval of all new drugs, imported or domestic, the manufacturing permission of these drugs in India is granted by concerned state drug regulatory authorities. It is believed that there is a perceptible variation within the states in quality of inspection, monitoring and enforcement of various regulatory systems and maintenance of uniform drug quality standards.

It is worth noting that ‘new drug’ status of a formulation type, remains for four years. After this period the state drug authorities can grant marketing approval of such products. Huge regulatory quagmire created with unabated proliferation of Fixed Dose Combination products (FDC) in India, is a testimony of how the drug regulatory systems works in India.

Despite existence of such variation in standard from state to state, it is indeed an irony that drugs approved and produced in any state are allowed to be marketed and sold across India or even be exported outside the country. It is quite possible that substandard drug producers can locate themselves in states with weaker regulatory controls and make their cheaper substandard products available for sales across the country, making hundreds and thousands of innocent citizens vulnerable to a possible life threatening risk.

Drug regulatory mechanism deserves a revamp in India without further delay:

Some people believe that hectic efforts by politicians and vested interests from the states with weaker regulatory controls have prevented the CDA bill from getting translated into reality, showing scant respect to the need of patients who may not have any other option but to use these substandard drugs.

How does the western world care for their patients with high quality medicines?

In the western world, drug regulators have taken specific measures to ensure availability of highest quality of medicines for their citizens. It is for that reason Food and Drug Administration of the United States of America (US-FDA) has opened its establishment in India to ensure that the drugs, which are manufactured in India and exported to the USA, are of highest quality standards.

Lackadaisical approach of the Indian drug regulatory authorities has created an environment within the country where many pharmaceutical manufacturers, including some large ones have allegedly placed themselves in a peculiar ‘comfort zone’ by not following prescribed procedures of generating required essential documents, while manufacturing drugs of high quality standards.

Continuous living in such comfort zones led to the largest pharmaceutical company of India, facing ban of 30 of their product formulations in the USA in 2008, against the charge of ‘falsifying’ the product manufacturing documents – a stigma on the pride of India in general and the Indian pharmaceutical industry, in particular, which will remain till the issue is sorted out. As if this was not enough, close on its heel some more incidents came into light with the names of other top Indian companies falling under the scanner of US FDA for not conforming to their regulatory requirements related to drugs manufactured for use in the US market.

When regulators of other countries are so active, why then are our own drug regulators failing to clean up the menace of spurious, substandard and counterfeit medicines in India? Why important bills like CDA are being stalled by the vested interests with the help of politicians, exposing a large number of patients to medical risks?

Will the new government be any different?

I sincerely hope that our new Minister of Health, Shri Ghulam Nabi Azad will sincerely address this very pressing health issue for the country. I also believe that under his astute leadership, the menace of spurious, substandard and counterfeit medicines will receive due consideration of the cabinet and the CDA bill will soon be a law.

Till then…crusade of Prof. Gupta continues:

If it happens, just as Dr. Gupta, the Indian American professor of Nuclear Medicine will get a huge sense of accomplishment, after fighting a long and arduous battle to save patients from the danger of substandard and counterfeit medicines in India, the civil society of our country will at the same time feel a unique sense freedom… the freedom from fear… the fear of substandard and counterfeit medicines.

By Tapan 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.

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