Banning medicine

23 Aug 2019


AGAINST the backdrop of deteriorating Pakistan-India relations and talk of banning Indian imports, a proposal to curb the purchase of medicine and raw material from across the border was brought up in a parliamentary committee on Tuesday. Senator Rehman Malik said that there was evidence that Indian pharmaceutical companies were tampering with the expiry dates of medicines. This is a serious charge, and the senator should provide whatever information he has on this count, so that his allegation is not viewed as one emanating from political compulsions. Mr Malik brought up his reservations in the Senate last month, after the federal health ministry announced that Pakistan imported medicine and vaccine worth Rs136, 99, 87,000 from India between January and May 2019. However, considering our dependence on pharma ingredients from abroad, an abrupt, blanket ban on lifesaving medicines and vaccines is not advisable. Further, a reactionary ban will increase the number of smuggled and spurious goods. There are around 900 registered pharmaceuticals in the country. Most depend on raw material from India and China that are primary destinations for the global drug industry in terms of access to pharma ingredients and raw material. If either country forms a monopoly, the prices will rise. Secondly, when it comes to finished dosage from drug products, the vast majority are already manufactured locally. It was only in the last couple of years that some companies received special permits to import FDFs that were already being produced in the country, such as antiviral tablets. However, Pakistan does not produce cancer treatment products along with a host of lifesaving vaccines. Thus it is dependent on India for quality medicine at cost-effective prices, as European manufactured pharmaceuticals are out of the range of the average consumer.

Pakistan continues to battle one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world, for which vaccines are provided from India. Other vital vaccines imported from our neighbours include anti-venom and anti-rabies vaccination. If Pakistani politicians demand that these vaccines be produced locally and meet the required international quality standards, then they must also provide incentives for local industries and a competitive market — something previous governments have failed to do — along with ending corruption, easing manufacturing costs, fixing the energy crisis, encouraging scientific and technological innovation, and ending violence and crime, particularly in the cities. Until then, public health will never be considered a priority.

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2019