November 4, 2016, could go down in history as a red letter day for e-pharmacies in India with the Drugs Consulting Committee (DCC) considering a report on e-pharmacies, including the possibility of legalising the sale of prescription medicines over the Internet. The report was submitted by the sub-committee on online pharmacies under the chairmanship of Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Harsha-deep Kamble.
The AIOCD AWACS, an entity that tracks retail pharma sales, put the cumulative annual sale of medicines at Rs 1 lakh crore. If e-commerce players can garner even 25 per cent of the business, it would translate into online sales of Rs 25,000 crore. A 5 per cent profit margin would mean Rs 1,200-crore in net profit. The recommendations will now be examined by the Drugs Technical Advisory Board, the highest decision-making body on technical matters, before it is sent to the health ministry for approval, followed by relevant amendments to the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940. The sub-committee reportedly noted that there is no existing infrastructure for an immediate roll-out. It also said that non-prescription medicines could be sold online to put the new systems and rules (once approved) to test before allowing sale of prescription drugs.
G.N. Singh, Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) and Chairman, DCC, says the benefits of new technology cannot be ignored, but at the same time all aspects have to be looked into before finalising the rules, because safety of the patients is a priority. "One of the key recommendations was to create a central portal for effective monitoring of all those who will be connected to the system, including doctors and those involved in the supply chain," he says.
The industry response, however, has been mixed. "Change is happening in the world towards digital medium and, therefore, e-pharmacies would be inevitable over a period of time. We must also have a mechanism where drugs are not given without prescription," says the founder of a leading pharma company. However, he was sceptical about its implementation and the outcomes. "The challenge for pharma companies is that when e-pharmacies become big, they will start their own store brands and push those, before eventually make their own generics. This in turn, could impact existing companies. And, if adequate controls are not in place, prescriptions could be tinkered with and spurious drugs could be pushed into the system." In fact, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, only 3 per cent of online pharmacies are in compliance with US pharmacy laws and practice standards. And, Indian industry observers feel the danger lies right there.
Most agree that medicine purchases are different from any other shopping - while the neighbourhood pharmacy could meet the urgent medical needs of patients, those with chronic disorders like diabetes or hypertension could opt for online purchases. There could also be some resistance from brick-and-mortar retailers against huge discounts offered by e-tailers.
But then, it's still a long way before legal e-pharmacies see the light of the day.