The New York Times has written quite a lot lately on the cost of drugs – without a word on either the value of new medicines or the cost of investing in innovation. On the up side, the Gray Lady has finally discovered the cost of poor medicines quality.
For years, Dr. Harry Lever, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, has been warning nearly anyone who would listen of his growing suspicions about generic versions of a widely used heart drug, Toprol XL.
Patient after patient, he said, would visit his office complaining of chest pains or other symptoms after switching from the brand-name version, made by AstraZeneca, to a generic product, often one made in India. When he switched them back to the brand — or to another generic — the symptoms disappeared, he said. Dr. Lever wrote a letter outlining his concerns to the Food and Drug Administration in 2012, and this year, he traveled to Washington to try to get the attention of Congress.
Dr. Lever could not prove that the generic drugs were to blame. “You see enough people and you get a feel, but it’s anecdotes,” he said in an interview Monday. “It’s not science.”
This is in keeping with a March Reuter’s story on the same topic:
Some U.S. doctors are becoming concerned about the quality of generic drugs supplied by Indian manufacturers following a flurry of recalls and import bans by the Food and Drug Administration.”
"I'm just beginning to realize the gravity of the problem," said Dr. Steven Nissen, head of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. "It's terrible and it is starting to get a lot of traction among physicians."
Hopefully the Times story will provide further traction because, as Dr. Lever said (in the Reuter’s story),
We are losing control over what people are swallowing," said Dr. Harry Lever, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic who is trying raise awareness of the matter among U.S. lawmakers. "Now, when a patient comes in who is not doing well, the first thing I do is look at their drugs and find out who makes it."
It’s too simplistic to call these “quality” problems. There’s a range from sub-standard API and manufacturing issues, to excipient changes and, most importantly, bioequivalence and bioavailability standards.
Bioequivalence does not always equal therapeutic equivalence – and that’s as true for Toprol XL as it is for Wellbutrin. According to the Times story, Two large Indian manufacturers, Wockhardt and Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, have announced recalls over the last two months totaling more than 100,000 bottles of Toprol XL because their products were not dissolving properly — therefore probably not working as they should. The drug is a beta blocker that treats high blood pressure and heart ailments. Not good.
FDA’s recent draft guidances on bioequivalence for both generic and innovator products, as well as the move towards independent labeling for generic products are additional steps the agency has recently taken to address the issue of drug quality beyond safety and efficacy. And the implications for biosimilars is obvious
(Something else to consider is for the FDA to report BE and BA and PK data in generic labels.)
Small is the new Big means we must think differently about pharmacovigilance. While we must continue to capture adverse event data, we must also strive to capture Substandard Pharmaceutical Events (SPEs). SPEs occur when a product does not perform as expected—perhaps because of API or excipient issues. SPEs can arise because of an issue related to therapeutic interchangeability. When it comes to 21st-century pharmacovigilance, we have to both broaden and narrow our views about bioequivalence to the patient level.
Where's the Times editorial on that?