Bad for health

Move to replace gelatin-based capsules with those made from plant products is not guided by medical reasons.

Written by Editorial | Published:June 21, 2017 12:05 am
animal based capsules. gelatin capsules, cellulose based capsules, vegetarian capsules, Drug Technical Advisory Board, health ministry, By all accounts, a switch over to cellulose-based capsules could jeopardise the government’s recent initiatives to make medicines accessible to all.

A notice issued by a health ministry expert committee in the first week of June signals the government’s intention to usher major change in India’s pharmaceutical sector. It invites comments from stakeholders about replacing widely-used animal parts-based gelatin capsules with those derived from cellulose. Currently, 98 per cent of the Indian pharmaceutical industry uses animal parts-based capsules. But the government has been pitching for “vegetarian capsules” for the past two years. However, there is little medical — or commercial — reasoning behind this proposal. By all accounts, a switch over to cellulose-based capsules could jeopardise the government’s recent initiatives to make medicines accessible to all.
In 2015, the scientific committee which advises the Drug Controller General of India (DGCI) gave an in-principle approval to the shift to cellulose-based capsules. In an e-mail last year to the joint secretary, health ministry, the DGCI pitched for “vegetable capsules for vegetarian society”. The DGCI’s vegetarian fetish found support from the Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi. In a representation to the health ministry last year, she argued, “In a country where there are millions of people, this hurts religious sentiments and many people avoid medicines that are in a capsule form”. The health ministry’s latest notice is in response to this representation.

In 2015, the scientific committee which advises the Drug Controller General of India (DGCI) gave an in-principle approval to the shift to cellulose-based capsules. In an e-mail last year to the joint secretary, health ministry, the DGCI pitched for “vegetable capsules for vegetarian society”. The DGCI’s vegetarian fetish found support from the Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi. In a representation to the health ministry last year, she argued, “In a country where there are millions of people, this hurts religious sentiments and many people avoid medicines that are in a capsule form”. The health ministry’s latest notice is in response to this representation.

The ministry has overruled the reasoning of its premier advisory agency, the Drug Technical Advisory Board, which had dismissed Gandhi’s representation on the grounds that: “Unlike food, drugs are not taken as choice but are prescribed by doctors to save lives and marking them as vegetarian or non-vegetarian is not desirable”. Industry, too, is sceptical of the move. It has argued that the gelatin capsules have been in use all over the world for more than 180 years. Questions have also been raised about the viability of cellulose-based capsules. In a representation to the DGCI last year, the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry cited the huge economic cost of the switch, which may also impact accessibility of medicines. “The investments required to be made for manufacturing cellulose-based capsules are substantial and will require planning and time,” the industry body argued. It reckons that the cost of raw material required to make cellulose capsules is “approximately four times that of gelatin and the manufacturing cost of cellulose-based capsules approximately three times the cost of gelatin capsules”. The health ministry’s June notice invites opinions from industry, NGOs and medical bodies. But the government will do well to guard against pandering to “religious sentiments” on health matters.

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