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'Veg capsule for veg society': Govt wants gelatin out of your medicines

Union Health Ministry is looking at replacing gelatin capsules with cellulose-based ones

BS Web Team  |  New Delhi 

Pharmaceutical tablets and capsules
Representative image

Soon, you can out-vegan the staunchest vegan with your 'pure-vegetarian' medicine capsules. According to, an online portal for India's pharmaceuticals industry, the Union Health Ministry is looking to replace gelatin capsules with cellulose-based capsules. 

The ministry, according to the report, had set up an expert committee to look into the matter in March this year. According to a report by the Indian Express, the committee has invited comments from all stakeholders in a notice dated June 2. The Committee has asked all stakeholders, including manufacturers, NGOs, and consumers, to send their suggestions and comments within 21 days. 

How did we get here?

Union Minister for Women and Child Development appears to be the person behind this latest push towards going all-veg. According to the Indian Express, Gandhi's representation to the health ministry last year on completely replacing with plant-based ones got the ball rolling. 

Apparently, it boils down to religious sentiments, as always. "In a country where there are millions of vegetarians, this hurts religious sentiments and many people avoid medicines that are in capsule form. Representations received from the Jain community have also requested that since there is an option available in the country, consumers must not be forced to use capsules made from animal tissue," Gandhi's representation to the ministry said. 

Gelatin is obtained by boiling the connective tissues, bones, and skin of animals.

Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare Jagat Prakash Nadda, the national daily reported citing official documents, took to the idea with gusto and asked for "necessary steps" to be taken on "priority".

The experts and industry aren't so gung-ho about the idea

The Drug Technical Advisory Board (DTAB), which is the country's apex drug committee, shot down the proposal in May last year, the national daily added in its report. The committee found that medicines were meant to "save lives" and, therefore, marking them as vegetarian or was "not desirable".  

However, according to the report, the health ministry did not think much of the committee's opinion. 

HPMC or plant-based capsules seem to have caught the imagination of the ministry. So much so that, according to the report, despite the DTAB's observation that HPMC was synthetic in origin and could not be considered "purely vegetarian", the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) called for a "vegetable capsule for (a) vegetarian society" in an email addressed to the health ministry's joint secretary. However, the report added that even the DCGI had to accept that such capsules were nearly three times costlier than in India. 

The pharmaceutical industry is not onboard either. According to the pharmabiz report, the industry has been against the idea since the beginning. The reasons cited by the industry are: have been in use for more than 185 years; they are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the European Union, among others; lack of time-tested data on cellulose-based capsules; the extensive clinical trials gelatin-based capsules have been subjected to; and the fact that have not been known for any adverse effects; among others.  
What happens to the cost of medicine?

Switching over to 'pure-veg' capsules will lead to an increase in the cost of associated medicines, according to experts.  

Speaking to Indian Express on the matter, Surajit Pal, pharma analyst with financial services firm Prabhudas Lilladher, said: "It’s simple… The prices of medicines will go up. First, there has to (be the) manufacturing capacity in the country for such plant-based capsules."

Juxtapose this with the fact that the Modi government has made affordable healthcare a major policy pillar. In fact, as reported earlier, the Centre is planning to make it mandatory for doctors to prescribe pure-generic drugs, instead of branded generics. The health ministry has started working on amending the Drugs and Cosmetics Act to this effect. The push for generic drugs to reign in the prices paid by patients comes after the government also decided to put a cap on coronary stent prices. 

Given the above context, is chasing vegetarian capsules the best use of the health ministry resources? 

First Published: Mon, June 19 2017. 10:23 IST