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Pharmaceutical Outsourcing: Trading Quality for Lower Costs?

Posted Jul 11 2010 7:37pm
Photo by Infrogmation

Photo by Infrogmation

With the waning economy, outsourcing has never been a more popular route for businesses to take.  Why pay more when you can get a similar product or service for less overseas?  Traditionally, outsourcing has been limited to low-end, back-office type of work. However, in the recent years, more companies have been outsourcing complex services such as medical diagnostics.

So it should be no surprise that India, a country with an abundance of cost effective labor, has emerged as a hot spot for pharmaceutical companies to outsource their drug manufacturing.   The NY Times reports ,

India ’s drug industry on track to grow about 13 percent this year, to just over $24 billion was once notorious for making cheap knockoffs of Western medicines and selling them in developing countries. But India, seasoned in the basics of medicine making, is now starting to take on a more mainstream role in the global drug industry, as a result of recent strengthening of patent law here and cost pressures on name-brand drug makers in the West.

Not limited to just manufacturing, India is projected to further expand into more sophisticated aspects of drug making such as pharmaceutical research and development. Due to its cheap labor, Indian drug companies are able to “discover new drugs at a tenth of the cost” incurred in the United States, according to Ajay G. Piramal , the chairman of Piramal Healthcare.

This pharmaceutical boom in India has been relatively recent.  Initially, pharmaceutical companies were hesitant to outsource their internal operations.  Sujay Shetty , an associate director with PricewaterhouseCooper in Mumbai, described pharma as  “an incredibly arrogant industry” and predicted that “everything in the value chain will move to different parts of the world that are cheaper.”

But, what risks are these pharmaceuticals companies taking?  Outsourcing, in general, can be riddled with quality problems and pharmaceutical outsourcing to India has been no exception.  According to the NY Times ,

Recent growth, though, has been shadowed by quality problems. The F.D.A. cited Ranbaxy [India's largest pharmaceutical manufacturer] for manufacturing violations several times in recent years, and in February ordered a review of the company’s global manufacturing operations.

In May, Sanofi-Aventis recalled vaccines made by Shantha Biotechnics that were distributed to the World Health Organization after users complained about white sediment in the vials. In June, after floating matter was found in some plastic IV bags, Pfizer recalled injectible drugs made by Claris Lifesciences and sold in the United States.

Maybe pharmaceutical companies were justified in being cautious, even to the point of arrogance, in deciding whether to outsource in the past.  Drug manufacturing is a complex process that needs proper review practices to prevent errors.

Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken note of India’s growing influence in the drug industry and has been cracking down to prevent substandard and contaminated drugs from entering the United States.  In the past two years, the FDA has opened two new offices in India, one in Delhi and the other in Mumbai.  And just last month, as reported by The Wall Street Journal , the FDA stated that “it will propose stronger regulation for pharmaceutical companies that outsource manufacturing, putting more responsibility on the companies to ensure the purity and safety of the products…”

Whether or not the FDA’s crackdown improves the quality of the outsourced drugs remains to be seen.  But, with lower costs and regulation avoidance said to be the primary motivation behind pharmaceutical outsourcing , it’s uncertain whether the quality problems mentioned by the NY Times will be the last.

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