Merchants of death in Indian pharma lethal for nation
Unfortunately this is not the first such case, nor is likely to be the last. Vaccines made in haste indigenously during the pandemic had also exposed chinks in our armour.
Published: 16th October 2022 05:00 AM | Last Updated: 15th October 2022 03:32 PM | A+A A-
There was a time when the phrase 'merchants of death' was used exclusively for arms dealers. The term covered ‘respectable’ middlemen and brokers, agents for large armament manufacturers with a global footprint, as well as small-time smugglers and gun-runners. With changing times, drug dealers --warlords controlling vast swathes of land in Latin America, Afghanistan and Golden Triangle in South East Asia -- came to share this label. Now, it seems some Indian pharmaceutical companies are being identified and condemned with these despicable words.
A pharmaceutical company in Haryana has brought ignominy to the nation. Sixty-six kids died
in Nigeria after they were administered the lethal cough syrup made by the company. Suddenly, skeletons have started tumbling out of the cupboard. It seems that red flags about the substandard medicines produced by this company had been raised earlier. The owners had tried to deflect adverse publicity and critical scrutiny by stating that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had certified its facilities, and all its manufacturing was WHO-compliant.
The WHO has denied all such claims and the company is maintaining discreet silence. Some disturbing questions are raised here. These pertain to slackness, oversight or corruption on the part of government-entrusted authorities to enforce regulation and carry periodic inspections to ensure that the products are safe for human consumption.
There have been quality-related issues that have caused embarrassment to the country in the past as well. Ultra-patriotic defenders of swadeshi enterprise have contended that such allegations are part of
a conspiracy to subvert and cripple the Indian pharma industry. The FDA in the US or agencies in the European Union try to impose unfair standards to render Indian medicines and vaccines uncompetitive in Western markets. India has been consistently accused of breaching patents and copyrights. Tariff barriers have, indeed, been used as an obstacle to retard India's emergence as a major science and tech power, which has resulted in it targeting developing countries in Africa and Asia.
All of this, however, isn't relevant in the present case. Innocent infants have died, leaving grieving families enraged. They trusted India and have paid with the lives of their children. The pharma company in question appears to be a serial offender. A list of its medicines, from fever-reducing tablets to blood sugar-controlling formulations, have all been found dangerously below par. Playing with patients' lives should be treated as a capital offence and punished accordingly.
Unfortunately this is not the first such case, nor is likely to be the last. Vaccines made in haste indigenously during the pandemic had also exposed chinks in our armour. The Indian vaccine took a long time to get emergency use approval from the WHO and many issues remain unresolved till date. Claims of miracle ayurvedic cures by a baba with expertise in yoga, not medicine, muddied the waters further. Mockery was made of clinical trials and peer reviews.
Insistence by top leaders that ancient Indian wisdom can't be matched by modern science has only encouraged quacks masquerading as spiritual masters to trespass into the territory of science and expound superstitions as 'traditional knowledge'. Lines between history and myth are deliberately fudged to suit partisan political purpose. Accomplishments of surgeons of yore in the realm of plastic surgery are confused with organ transplant. All this has only helped ignorance multiply and mutate like a virulent virus. Those with no scruples can ride the bandwagon and carry on their trade in deadly drugs.
Who is going to address these issues? Those who lead us are busy launching a new scheme every day, better than the best elsewhere in the world. Jungle safaris, super-fast trains, smarter cities…the list is endless. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, said Robert Browning. Perhaps the time has come to talk about over-reach of those in a tearing hurry to grab everything before the next election.
Grasp, now that is a tricky word. If you lunge before grasping what you are after, there is a serious risk of floundering. The fist, however tightly clasped, can't hold everything. Inaugurations are organised with great fanfare before getting the act together.
The Vande Bharat Express is just one such case of haste making waste. One day it is dented by
a buffalo colliding with it on the tracks. The next a cow is killed as the poor thing strays in the path of the gleaming streamlined beauty hurtling on railway lines. The railway minister is now constrained to admit that one can't eliminate the possibility of stray cattle crossing the tracks. But hadn't the 'best and brightest' in the service of nation thought it through? They never do.
The obsession with being first is playing havoc.
Pushpesh Pant is former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.