A new report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has drawn a lot of attention to the public health dangers of falsified and substandard medicines around the world. The aim is to build support for a range of activities that can limit the spread of fake medicines in the U.S. and help developing nations strengthen their domestic regulatory capabilities.
Falsified and substandard medicines can be ineffective, promote drug resistance and even cause severe illness and death, said panel chairman Lawrence Gostin, Georgetown University Law Center professor and director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights. The report [“Countering the Problem of Falsified and Substandard Drugs” available at www.nap.edu] urged regulators to adopt international practices on surveillance, regulation and enforcement, including technical quality standards developed by the International Conference on Harmonization.
Most important to pharma companies, the panel backed a mandatory U.S. electronic drug track-and-trace system able to identify products at the unit level through unique serial numbers. This approach is supported by the Food and Drug Administration – which requested the report — but considered too costly and complex by manufacturers, pharmacists and wholesalers.
The expert panel also proposed to strengthen supply chain tracking through tighter state regulation of drug wholesalers, including creation of a public database of distribution firms that have had licenses suspended or revoked. And the federal government would help low- and middle-income countries detect substandard products by identifying new sampling and analytical technologies through a central repository at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
One strategy for building support for all these activities is the panel’s decision to drop the term “counterfeit” in describing substandard drugs that pose a public health risk. The aim is to narrow the use of “counterfeit” to refer to products that infringe on trademarks and intellectual property protections, but are not necessarily substandard or adulterated. Calling all poor quality drugs “counterfeit,” the report notes, is seen by advocates for generic and low-cost medicines as a way to use the campaign against “bad drugs” as a guise to enforce patent and trademark regulations.
Similarly, the report defines more clearly “substandard,” “falsified” and “unregistered” drugs to provide a basis for regulatory agencies to target their legal and regulatory efforts.
The panel also calls for international development and financing agencies to support drug manufacturers in low-income countries that seek to upgrade facilities to meet good manufacturing practices. Such investment efforts would counter fake drug marketing by boosting local capacity for producing quality medicines.
Although an international treaty enforcing drug quality standards is the ultimate goal, publication of guidance on best practices as an interim step “is more realistic,” noted panel member Hans Hogerzeil, professor of global health at Groningen University in the Netherlands. The IOM panel also is asking the World Health Assembly to support its basic recommendations at its May 2013 annual meeting.
There’s some optimism that this report may spur FDA, manufacturers, distributors and pharmacists to reach agreement on an effective drug track-and-track system, an issue that has generated heated debate for more than a decade. Congressional action is needed to authorize mandatory tracking, as well as to require states to support a database on licensed drug wholesalers. Added resources for FDA to take on these tasks also is a real challenge.
While cost is an issue everywhere in implementing new regulatory and oversight programs, Gostin noted that limiting the use of substandard drugs would bring notable benefits in terms of lower hospital costs and fewer drug-resistant medicines. Adopting the panel’s recommendations, he said, is “a very good investment.”