Drug Quality and the Heart of Darkness

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  • 09/15/2014

Can there be a floor and a ceiling for global drug safety and quality? Even as we move toward differential pricing, should we allow some countries to have lower standards than others “based on local situations?”

When Paul Orhii, Director-General of Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, complained to the Chinese government that China was the origin of many of the counterfeit medicines in Nigeria, he was bluntly told Beijing was not responsible for the quality of medicines in Nigeria

When it comes to the safety of pharmaceuticals and medical devices, can one man’s ceiling be another man’s floor?

And how does this fit into the debate over trade policy versus trade practice? Should medical products that are determined not to meet any given national standard be allowed to be exported to other countries? Should there be a “good enough for me, good enough for thee” standard for international trade in pharmaceuticals and medical devices?

According to Poor Quality Drugs and Global Trade: A Pilot Study (a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research), Indian pharmaceutical companies are selling lower quality drugs at higher prices in Africa while at home on the Subcontinent, they’re selling the same drugs, manufactured to a higher quality standard at lower prices.

According to the paper’s abstract:

Experts claim that some Indian drug manufacturers cut corners and make substandard drugs for markets with non-existent, under-developed or emerging regulatory oversight, notably Africa. This paper assesses the quality of 1470 antibiotic and tuberculosis drug samples that claim to be made in India and were sold in Africa, India, and five mid-income non-African countries. We find that 10.9% of those products fail a basic assessment of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), and the majority of the failures are substandard (7%) as they contain some correct API but the amount of API is under-dosed. The distribution of these substandard products is not random: they are more likely to be found as unregistered products in Africa than in India or non-African countries. Since this finding is robust for manufacturer-drug fixed effects, one likely explanation is that Indian pharmaceutical firms and/or their export intermediaries do indeed differentiate drug quality according to the destination of consumption.

That’s the unfortunate distinction between trade policy and trade practice. Is this an issue for TRIPS? Should TRIPS Article 61 be amended to include punishments and penalties for those who export medicines and medical devices that do not meet a certain global standard?

While domestic standards are undeniably an issue of domestic sovereignty, shouldn’t there be transparency as to how any given nation defines safety and quality? “Market authorization” means one thing in the context of the MHRA, the FDA, the EMA, and Health Canada (to choose only a few “gold standard” examples), but how are we to judge the regulatory competencies of other national systems? Is that the responsibility of the WHO via a better-developed (and far more transparent) pre-qualification scheme? Or regional arbiters? Should there be “reference regulatory systems” as there are reference nations for pricing decisions? Should there be regulatory reciprocity?

All the more reason for “gold standard” nations to undertake a regulatory Marshall Plan to help build global systems for drug quality and safety.

The harmonization of global trade policy and practice is essential to the sinews of international medicines quality and safety.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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