Threats to Indian Generics: Failing in US Inspections is Just Half The Story

At a recent event of the American Enterprise Institute, Dr. Harry Lever, a senior cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, reportedly expressed his concern based on his personal experience regarding inconsistent quality among Indian generics. As a result, he requires switching patients off them, almost routinely, for desired therapeutic effects.

Many reasons may be attributed to such medical concerns on Indian generics in the United States, however limited those may be, the core issue can nevertheless be wished away.

Back home in India, many doctors reportedly have also expressed similar apprehensions on the quality of many generic formulations produced by over 10,000 pharmaceutical manufacturers in the country.

US-FDA on its part has taken action to protect health safety of the patients in the United States through import bans of drugs manufactured in all those facilities, which failed to meet its cGMP standards during inspection.

Not an old story:

Not so long ago, just in 2013, quality related concerns with generic drugs exported by India came to the fore after Ranbaxy reportedly pleaded guilty and paid a hefty fine of US$ 500 million for falsifying clinical data and distributing ‘adulterated medicines’ in the United States.

Thereafter, US-FDA banned drug imports from Ranbaxy and Wockhardt, manufactured in all those facilities that failed to conform to its cGMP quality standards.

Those are the stories for generic formulations. Most recently, following yet another ‘import ban’ and this time for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) manufactured at its Toansa plant, Ranbaxy has suspended all shipments of APIs pending review. With this step, Ranbaxy would virtually have no access to the top pharmaceutical market of the world.

A not very responsible remark either:

Unfortunately, in the midst of such a scenario, instead of taking transparent and stringent measures, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) was quoted as saying, “We don’t recognize and are not bound by what the US is doing and is inspecting. The FDA may regulate its country, but it can’t regulate India on how India has to behave or how to deliver.”

The DCGI made this comment as the US-FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg was wrapping up her over a weeklong maiden trip to India in the wake of a number of ‘Import Bans’ arising out of repeated cGMP violations by some large domestic generic drug manufacturers. Whereas, Hamburg reiterated the need for the domestic drug makers of India to make sure that that the medicines they export are safe for patients, the DCGI’s above comment appears rather arrogant and out of tune, to say the least.

Just recently, on the above comments of the DCGI, the American Enterprise Institute reportedly commented, “Indian drug regulator is seen as corrupt and colliding with pharma companies…”

Failing in US-FDA inspection is just half of the story:

Around 40 percent of prescriptions and Over The Counter (OTC) drugs that are now sold in the United States come from India. All most all of these are cheaper generic versions of patent expired drugs. Total annual drug export of India, currently at around US$ 15 billion, is more than the domestic turnover of the pharma industry. Hence, India’s commercial stake in this area is indeed mind-boggling.

It is now well known, if such ‘Import Bans’ continue or grow due to shoddy compliance of required cGMP standards, there could be a serious challenges for the Indian drug exporters to salvage their reputation on drug quality for a long time to come. Consequently, this will offer a crippling blow not just to their respective organizational business outlook, but also to future drug exports of India. It is worth mentioning that drugs and pharmaceuticals are currently a net foreign exchange earner for the country.

The other half of the story:

Threats related to export of Indian generic drugs on quality parameters, as flagged by the US-FDA in India, is just half the story. The other half of the story begins in the US, instead of in India, and is related to stringent new measures taken by the same regulator in its own land to have a check on the quality of imported generic drugs consumed by the patients in America.

A recent report highlights that around twelve academic centers of the United States are now involved in the firstever widespread safety and quality evaluation of generic drugs. This program is run by the US-FDA and would continue through 2017.

This initiative has been prompted by the fact that generic drugs currently contribute over 80 percent of prescriptions written in the US. In 2014, the said program will reportedly focus on cardiovascular drugs, ADHD treatments, immune-suppressants, anti-seizure medicines, and antidepressants. The grand plan is highlighted to project the priority emphasis of the US-FDA on the quality of generic drugs, especially after it banned medicine import from four India-based facilities over a period of last nine months.

Some Examples:

- A widespread testing program of USFDA followed its 2012 finding that generic copies of antidepressant medication Wellbutrin XL did not work as good as the original. This study eventually led the largest generic drug player of the world -Teva to withdraw its generic version from the market in 2012.

- According to the report, US-FDA is now reviewing a 2013 study done by a Boston-based researcher that found widespread impurities in the generic version of Pfizer’s anti- cholesterol drug Lipitor manufactured outside of the US. The research reportedly found that some generic versions of Lipitor produced overseas were rendered ineffective as a result of manufacturing impurities. However, US-FDA action on the same is not known, as yet.

Thus, the other half of the story unfolds the reality that, even if any exporter escapes USFDA inspection in India, there is a fair chance now that the generic formulations could be tested in the US itself under the above program and if found wanting in quality parameters, concerned generic formulation could face a ban in the United States.

Conclusion:

There is nothing like tightening all loose knots in the required cGMP process for all drugs manufactured in India, without bothering much about their testing in the US. If the drug quality consciousness becomes robust in the shop floor, well before the products leave the shores of India, there is no reason why the country would face similar embarrassing incidents in future, along with a strong global furore.

The US-FDA Commissioner’s recent calling on the DCGI to join hands with the US to enforce more rigorous oversight of drug manufacturing facilities, needs to be followed up with due earnest, the above avoidable comment of the DCGI not withstanding.

The Commissioner reportedly reiterated that the US would increase the number of FDA inspectors in India from 11 to 19 as it intensifies inspections of drug manufacturing plants, simultaneously with arranging cGMP compliance related workshops for the drug exporters. The DCGI also made an announcement that India intends to increase its inspectors from 1,500 to 5,000 over the next five years.

A deepening economic spat over cheaper generic drugs, not withstanding, all these good intents to maintain a robust drug quality standard need to be translated into reality.

Trying to find ghosts nurturing dubious intentions against India, especially in areas pertaining to drug quality standards, may not augur well for the patients at large, not just of the United Stated, but for our own homeland too.

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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