The Recent Ban On Irrational FDCs: History Repeats Itself

The recent regulatory ban on a large number of irrational Fixed Dose Combination (FDC) drugs is not a new incident in India. A similar mega ban was announced even before, about nine years ago. Intriguingly, the saga continues, for various reasons, without any tangible outcome for the patients on the ground.

On March 11, 2016, the latest ban, again on a large number of irrational FDCs, was notified. It caused a flutter and an immediate sharp adrenaline rush to the impacted drug companies and was soon followed by an interim stay order, again by an honorable High Court of the country.

Thus, when I connect the past dots with the latest one, on mega ban of irrational FDCs in India, a similar sequence of events gets unfolded, following each of such ban notifications of the Government.

Looking back, 294 FDCs were banned by the DCGI in 2007. At that time too, the important issue of patients’ health, safety and economical interest, got converted into a legal quagmire. Many adversely affected FDC drug players chose to go to the court of law to protect their business interest, and also successfully managed to obtain a ‘Stay’ order from the Madras High Court.

Consequently, those 294 irrational FDCs, banned by the Union Ministry of Health on health and safety grounds, continued to be promoted, prescribed and sold to patients across India, without any hindrance, whatsoever.

The matter continues to remain sub judice, as we deliberate the issue here. Thus, whether the recent gazette notification on the ban of irrational FDCs would immediately be implemented, unlike the past ban, or the history would repeat itself, is indeed a big question mark, at this juncture.

Would this ban have similar outcome?  

As discussed, close to a decade after the serious legal fall-out of the ban of 294 irrational FDCs in 2007, another mega ban of 344 irrational FDCs has been announced by the Government, through a Gazette Notification dated March 11, 2016. Some well known brands, such as, Corex, Phensedyl, Crocin Cold and Flu, D-Cold Total, Nasivion and Vicks Action 500 Extra, among others, reportedly come under this ban now. Here is the complete list of 344 banned FDCs.

According to the Government, the reason for banning these drugs is that ‘they involve risk to humans and safer alternatives were available.’

Nevertheless, manufacturers of some of these mega brands have again obtained an interim injunction on the ban for their respective products, from the Delhi High Court.

Sometime during the day, i.e. on March 21, 2016, the honorable Delhi High Court is expected to take up this patient-centric issue. It apparently smacks a blatant self-serving interest of the concerned irrational FDC manufacturers, that defeats the core purpose and value of pharma products for their users.

Like most other issues, the Court directive on this issue, as well, would ultimately prevail, without any shade of doubt.

Is it a ‘bolt from the blue’ for the pharma industry? 

Many industry watchers feel that this recent ban has not come as a ‘bolt from the blue’ for the pharma players, at all, as is being claimed by a section of the pharma industry. Even the Union Ministry of Health has, reportedly, clarified the following points on the recent notification:

  • “We have tried to bring objectivity to the issue by roping in the best of scientists to study the effects of these FDCs.”
  • “Show cause notices were also issued to more than 344 companies and they were given time to make further representations after the expert committee gave their recommendations. Some of them did not even care to respond. Everybody was given ample opportunity. After that, the move was initiated. It was done after much examination.”
  • “It is necessary and expedient in the public interest to regulate by way of prohibition of manufacture for sale, sale and distribution for human use, of the said drugs in the country.”

It is worth noting, at least, one of these well known pharma brands was, reportedly, banned in one of our neighboring countries – Sri Lanka, in 2012, for wide-spread drug misuse, long after its marketing approval in the country.

Some key events leading to the recent ban: 

Besides the above articulation by the Union Ministry of Health, it is worth noting, especially, the following key developments to ascertain, whether this ban came suddenly to the irrational FDC manufacturers, and without any prior warning or appropriate communication:

  • The issue of manufacturing licenses being granted by some states for FDCs without prior approval of Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), was first discussed by the Drugs Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) in the year 2000, though without any major tangible outcome till 2007. 
  • In 2007, Government banned 294 FDCs, and the consequent court proceedings had ‘Stayed’ this ban.
  • Expressing huge concern on pharma malpractices related to irrational FDCs, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare in its 59th report (2012) also had flagged this issue. The lawmakers observed in the report that manufacturing licenses for large numbers FDCs were being issued by the State Drug Authorities, without prior approval of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), in violation of rules. The committee also noted that multiple FDCs, which are available in India had been rejected by the drug regulators in Europe, North America, and Australia, while for many others never had marketing approval applications submitted outside India (Section 7 of [6]).
  • Subsequently, in June 2013, CDSCO  announced the “Policy Guidelines for Approval of Fixed Dose Combinations (FDCs) In India.”
  • According to CDSCO, just 1193 FDCs were approved by the DCGI, since 1961 till November, 2014. Thus, all drug manufacturers should clearly know, which FDC has been approved by the DCGI, and when, leaving no scope for any ambiguity in this area. Thus, there should be no problem in total conformance to the above ‘FDC Policy Guidelines’ by these drug producers.
  • In the same year – 2013, a public notice was also, reportedly, issued, calling all those drug players manufacturing FDCs to apply with the requisite fee, in the prescribed form to the DCGI office, providing the required details.  
  • In 2014, a six-member committee, chaired by Prof. (Dr.) Chandrakant Kokate, Vice Chancellor, KLE University, Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, Belgaum, Karnataka, was formed to expedite the review process of the applications. 
  • The Kokate Committee has, reportedly, reviewed about 6,600 FDCs, so far, and classified them under four categories – irrational, require further deliberations, rational and require additional data generation. 
  • According to a report, 963 FDCs were found under the irrational category, providing reasons in detail for each. 
  • In 2016, the Government finalized its action, based on the Report of Kokate Committee and also the response received (or still not received despite requests) from the concerned FDC manufacturers.
  • The March 11, 2016 Gazette Notification banned 344 ‘irrational’ FDCs, ruffling many feathers, but understandably to protect patients’ health interest.
  • On March 14, 2016, in response to an appeal against this ban through a writ petition, first by Pfizer, the Delhi High Court reportedly granted the company a stay, pending the next court hearing on March 21, 2016. Subsequently, several such stay orders by the honorable Delhi High Court have been issued with the same date of hearing. 
Adverse health and economic impact on patients:

Besides serious health risks, the patients also suffer from a huge adverse economical impact, in rupee value terms, by consuming much avoidable irrational FDC formulations, which are generally more expensive than single ingredient drugs, if taken separately at times of necessity or convenience.

The ban of 344 FDCs is estimated to cover over 2,500 brands, in different therapy categories, including chronic diseases, where medicines are taken for a long period of time. Thus, a large number of patients were consuming these irrational formulations for a long period of time without any inkling of their necessity and more importantly serious adverse health impact that these irrational FDCs could cause.

To quantify how much have the patients collectively spent on these banned medicines, in the rupee value terms, I shall quote from the estimates of one of the well reputed and much quoted pharma retail audit and market research organization of India – AIOCD Pharmasofttech AWACS Pvt. Ltd.

According to its report of March 13, 2016, Indian Pharmaceutical Industry would lose Rs. 3,838 Crore (MAT), which is 3.1 percent of the turnover of the Indian Pharmaceutical Market (IPM), when calculated based on the retail sales of these FDCs in the last 12-month period.

Paraphrasing the same finding, one can logically conclude that Indian patients withstood an adverse economic impact of Rs. 3,838 Crore in a 12-month period, by spending on these unnecessary and irrational FDCs of dubious value, besides health risks. 

To my surprise, some of the MNC pharma players contribute a major chunk to this avoidable expenditure of the patients, besides associating and avoidable health risks.

Quoting similar credible data, it is also possible to give company-wise break-up in this area, which, in my view, may not be meaningful here.

Two Critical issues to address:

Although, a lot of water has since flown down the bridges, a large number of irrational FDCs are still in the market, exposing patients to possible health hazards and economical hardship.

In this blog, I discussed this core issue in two of my articles, one on July 15, 2013 titled, “FDC Saga: Defiant Manufacturers, Sloppy Regulators and Humongous Inaction”, and the other on May 18, 2015 titled, “Booming Sales Of Unapproved Drugs: Do We Need ‘Safe In India’ Campaign For Medicines?”.

I reckon, the following two would still remain the critical issues, which need to be addressed, expeditiously, once and for all, for patients’ sake: 

  • Stringent compliance with the latest CDSCO requirements by all the manufacturers of FDCs in India must be ensured. Any non-conformance should attract strong punitive measures, through a transparent process.
  • Whether such drugs are being widely misused, creating a grave risk for health and other safety hazards, must be ascertained periodically, based on credible data.
An important example:                         

Just the other day, Reuters reported that one of the largest pharma companies operating in India, was selling a FDC of the antibiotics cefixime and azithromycin, without approval of the DCGI.

Interestingly, this particular FDC has reportedly not received marketing approval in the major global pharma markets, such as, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France or Japan.

After the ban of this irrational FDC, the company was compelled to stop manufacturing and sales of this powerful antibiotic cocktail that poses huge health risk to patients.

This Reuters report also states, the drug ‘had been promoted and administered as a treatment for a broad array of illnesses, including colds, fevers, urinary tract infections, drug-resistant typhoid and sexually transmitted diseases.’ It also found chemists who were selling the drug to prevent post-operative infection and for respiratory problems.

Many doctors and health experts have been saying that the spread and misuse of antibiotic combinations may be contributing to antibiotic resistance in India.

FDC approval must be hard evidence-based:

Since all pharmaceutical products, whether available as a single ingredient, or FDC formulations, are globally considered as ‘Evidence-Based Medicines’. Such evidences are established through robust, stringent and well regulated clinical trials for obtaining marketing approval from the drug regulators, unlike most ‘traditional medicines’.

Following this well-established global norm, and as recommended by even the World Health Organization (WHO), all irrational FDCs must be identified through a transparent and medical science-based process, and banned forthwith by the Government.

Establishing safety and efficacy for all FDCs through clinical trials, just like any other single ingredient drug, introduced for the first time in India, whenever it happens or had happened in the past, inadvertently or otherwise, should be a ‘must happen’ regulatory requirement, for all time to come.

Profit making interest through introduction of a plethora of irrational FDCs, should never be allowed to overshadow patients’ health and economical interest.

The bogey of even ‘25 to 30-year-old FDCs’ now being banned: 

Some section of the industry is also raising this point, vociferously, protesting against the bans of their respective old and top-selling FDC brands, which have now been considered by the Government as irrational, and questioning: ‘why now?’

This point is irrelevant, as not taking action ever, against a wrong doing allowed over a long period time, does not make an irrational FDC formulation a rational one, for all time to come.

Moreover, this recent action of the drug regulator can not be considered as unique either. With the advancement of medical science, in the past years too, the DCGI issued banned notifications, covering many old FDCs, considering those ‘irrational combinations’ at a given point of time, such as, analgin + pitofenone, vitamins B1 + B6 + B12, cyproheptadine + lysine, just to name a few.

Conclusion:

As is known to many, pharmacovigilance is still at a very nascent stage in India. Consequently, ‘Adverse Drug Reactions (ADR)’ or ‘Adverse Drug Events’ reporting are still abysmally poor in the country. No information on ‘Adverse Drug Events’, as claimed by the manufacturers of these irrational FDCs, should, therefore, in no way mean that these drugs are safe and efficacious and beyond any reasonable doubt.

Although the laxity of the drug regulator in this area can’t also be condoned, in any way, the enormity of the risks posed by irrational FDCs to the innocent patients, is indeed mind boggling.

If the manufacturing and sale of all irrational FDCs are not legally stopped, even after a long and rigorous scientific and medical scrutiny by the experts, the patients in the country would, unfairly, continue to remain exposed to huge health and economic risks, without any fault of theirs. This is exactly what happened in 2007 also, when, after the stay order of the ban notification for 294 irrational FDCs by the honorable Madras High Court, all those FDCs continued to be promoted, prescribed and sold to patients across India, unhindered… but at whose cost?

Yet again, the gazette notification of the Government on the recent ban on 344 FDCs, has gone for judicial scrutiny, at least, for some money spinning key brands of the large pharma players.

This time, however, there is one significant difference, the Government seems to be far more assertive and committed to ensure that only safe medicines are available in the market, despite reported intense advocacy by the industry. This commitment on the part of the Government is also evident from the media report that the (DGCI) has again sent a new list of additional 1,200 FDCs for a probe to the panel, which recommended the ban of 344 irrational FDCs in the last week, and that too, after the court stay order on the latest ban.

Further, a senior a senior official in the Health Ministry has, reportedly, reiterated that the Government will stand firm on its decision, and will support the ban with robust data, in the Delhi High Court.

Would history repeat itself, this time now? We, at least, would get a sense of it, as the proceeding of the honorable Delhi High Court commences today, on this issue.

Either way, it will possibly send a clear signal, whether the triumph of commercial profit motive with irrational FDCs would continue, unabated, over patients’ health, safety and economic interests, at least in the foreseeable future. 

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.

 

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