The Globetrotting Regulator

By Peter J. Pitts

I am putting in a lot of miles on behalf of international regulatory fraternity.

Over the last few months I’ve visited Egypt, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Mexico, and Brazil, where I’ve had privilege to meet with regulatory and healthcare officials. (And boy, are my arms tired.)  Many things were discussed and shared, but the red thread was the urgency of quality.

I’ve learned many things and met many remarkable people. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve come to appreciate is that we need to stop talking about regulatory “harmonization” and focus our time and attention on regulatory “convergence.” Just as every nation has it’s own unique culture and cuisine, so too must it design it’s own regulatory philosophy and structure. It’s not about replicating the USFDA or the EMA – it’s about converging towards best practices — and beware the danger of regulatory imperialism.

At the top of the list is quality.

Without quality, safety and effectiveness are non-starters. Without quality, healthcare spending is not just wasteful – but harmful. Without quality it’s al about price without any consideration for value. Without quality, regulation is a sham.

In April I spent three fascinating days in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt at the Second Arab Conference on Food & Drugs. It was all business – and I didn’t even mind not getting any time to enjoy the Red Sea beaches.

Delegates from the Levant to Morocco had a lot to say and share. The fundamental take-away was that the Arab world is serious about coordinating their efforts in healthcare in general and in regulatory affairs specifically. “Convergence” and “harmonization” were the two key words of the event.

(The Middle East/North Africa Region – MENA – consists of 22 nations – but just 2% of global pharmaceutical sales.)

I was honored to present a plenary address on “Advancing Medicines Quality via New Strategies in Bioequivalence Regulations, Pharmacovigilance Practices, and the Identification and Management of Substandard Pharmaceutical Events,” as well as chair the event’s panel on pharmacovigilance, sharing the panel with governmental thought leaders such as Dr. Amina Tebba (Morocco), Dr. Amr Saad (Egypt), Dr. Emad Munsour (Qatar), and leading global policy experts Dr. Hisham Aljadhey (King Saud University), and Michael Deats (WHO). I also participated on a panel discussing the urgency of IP, as well as another on biosimilars – specifically calling out the vexing debate over nomenclature, physician notification, and therapeutic substitution.

With healthcare policy (as with life in general) – wherever you go, there you are.

Not surprisingly, much of the conversation centered on controlling costs – specifically pharmaceutical costs, without (alas) the appropriate balance of time spent on the pennywise/pound foolish consequences of many of these policies. The IP panel tried to add balance to that debate by strongly presenting the facts on the value of innovation.

Dr. Rasha Ziada (Egyptian Ministry of Health) made the important point that if a pricing authority doesn’t take outcomes into consideration, it will lead to overall price distortions. Amen. And Dr. Ola Ghaleb (Ministry of Health, United Arab Emirates), spoke about the UAE’s strategy of performance-based risk-sharing arrangements – but also how politics can derail any decision-making process. Her honesty was refreshing. Net/Net — Outcomes is now capitalized and bolded in the international lexicon of healthcare policy.

While many of the presenters discussed the value of sharing pharmaceutical economic data across borders, there was not an equal counterbalancing discussion of the value of sharing clinical data for approvals and outcomes-based decision-making processes. But there was certainly an effort (both on many of the panels as well as during the breaks and after hours) to stress the urgency of this agenda. The good news is that many, many speakers (sometimes in passing and other times passionately) made the point that it mustn’t just be about “getting the lowest price,” but also appropriately pricing the most clinically effective treatments. Bravo.

Many of the delegates said (from the floor as well as in conversation) that the conference was useful – but that action is required. In short – talk is cheap. My feeling (speaking privately with senior government officials from many of these nations) is that there is serious momentum for change (and even reinvention). But only time will tell.

As Deming said, “Change is not required. Survival is not mandatory.”

At the closing plenary session came “The Sharm El Sheikh Declaration.” The full document (in English translation) can be found here, but let me focus on the aspects that pertain to quality:

  • Investing in training and qualifying inspectors of pharmaceutical factories and ensuring the application of good manufacturing practice (GMP).
  • Strengthening drug post-marketing regulation through the establishment and activation of pharmacovigilance centers, while working on qualifying and training their workforce.
  • Urging Arab countries to invest in training inspectors of pharmaceutical factories to raise the quality of the inspection process and ensuring the application of current good manufacturing practice (cGMP).
  • Urging Arab countries to authorize performing bioequivalence studies and ensuring that they conform to the technical requirements of Good Clinical Practice (GCP) through regular inspection visits.
  • Urging international drugs regulatory authorities in the Arab world to activate drug post-marketing monitoring programs through establishing pharmacovigilance centers and equip them with trained pharmacists and doctors.

(Pleased and proud to say that many of these recommendations came from the conference panel I chaired on pharmacovigilance.)

In May my regulatory travels took me to Asia. In Jakarta I met with senior hospitalists to discuss the impact of Indonesia’s new legislation (designed to provide universal access to healthcare) – and its impact on both the quality of medicines available and a physicians right to choose both therapy and brand.  Senior healthcare leaders are concerned that insisting that the lowest priced product be used will result in suboptimal outcomes for those patients unable to access private healthcare. They recognize that a system that provides broader access to low quality care is not a victory. Bioequivalent does not equal identical. Biosimilar does not equal identical. The stakes are high.

Next up was the Javanese capital, of Yogyakarta for a symposium on pharmacovigilance held by Ahmad Dahlan University. The senior Ministry of Health official shared the fact that for a nation of 250+ million, there are but 10 people focused on pharmacovigilance. Talk about the Java Jive! She spoke of the need to develop better risk-based assessment protocols and better coordinate efforts with other nations in the region in order to share information on adverse events, bioequivalence, API and excipient sourcing. Quality is a team effort.

Meetings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City focused on quality with a more specific focus on the need for more regular bioequivalence testing on patients under treatment (as opposed to healthy volunteers) in order to better understand not adverse events, but the uptick in 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. In Vietnam they are beginning to understand and appreciate that Small is the new Big. The need to focus on the individual patient rather than the general population and on long-term care rather than short-term cost.

The last stop on my Asian tour was Taipei, where I had the opportunity to speak to a colloquium of oncology physicians. Their fear and frustration was similarly directed towards a government healthcare program that mandates the use of lowest cost products. Nowhere does this cause greater angst and anger than with healthcare professionals treating patients with cancer. The unintended consequences caused by short-term, price-driven government policies on quality and clinical outcomes cannot be underestimated. Those on the front lines (physicians and pharmacists) understand this. And recognizing there is a problem is the first step towards solving it.

And so home again, home again, jiggity jig to an American healthcare system debating many of the same issues – bioequivalence, biosimilarity, interchangeability, physician notification, substandard pharmaceutical events, patient/physician/pharmacist education, the price/value equation, short-term savings vs. long-term patient outcomes.

It’s a global fraternity of dedicated (and generally under-paid) healthcare and health policy professionals devoted to ensuring timely access to innovative medicines and quality generics drugs. It’s not easy and it’s not a job – it’s a personal public health mission.

It’s a small world after all.

Peter J. Pitts, a former FDA Associate Commissioner, is President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

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