Medicine policies

Jun 01 2020

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A RECENT article in this paper has raised some important questions pertaining to the pharma sector in Pakistan. Indeed, the authorities would do well to reflect on our predicament — especially in the midst of the ongoing pandemic — and point to the reasons why we are unable to produce even essential medications. Why doesn’t the country produce raw materials used to manufacture medicines? Why does it have to rely on the import of these products? What will happen if the supply of raw materials and ingredients needed to make lifesaving drugs faces sudden disruptions for one reason or another? Since the outbreak of Covid-19, which has upset the global industrial supply chain by compelling countries across the world to enforce partial to full lockdown to stop the spread of the deadly infection, these questions take on greater urgency. But perhaps the answer is not too difficult after all: in a nutshell, the fault mainly lies with our policies that discourage manufacturing and encourage imports.

Pharma raw material manufacturing is a capital-intensive effort as it requires acquisition and continuous upgradation of technology that is not available in the country to produce quality products. Being a science-based industry, it also requires substantial investment in research and continuous development of products and technology. Additionally, it demands years of hard work, and consistent, supportive government policies to become commercially viable. Unless all these are in place, investors will always be looking towards the government for subsidies, which is not a sustainable way of developing any industry, least of all a highly sophisticated one like pharma. In recent decades, India and China have emerged as two leading global suppliers of low-cost pharma raw materials because their governments helped their respective industries every step of the way. India, for example, has invested enormous resources in research and development to bring its pharma industry to a point where it can synthesise even high-end products using indigenous technology and expertise. Although a couple of firms have invested in pharma raw material production in Pakistan, despite the discouraging attitude of the drug regulator and other government agencies, few investors consider it profitable business given the costs involved and competition from Indian and Chinese suppliers. Nevertheless, the country still has a chance to enter the pharma raw material industry by encouraging the manufacture of plant-based products, especially for the global pain management drugs market. That could be a start.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2020