FROM headaches to fever to bodily pain — paracetamol is used ubiquitously in Pakistan as the go-to remedy for most common ailments. In recent months, the drug’s most familiar brand, ‘Panadol’, has been in short supply in the country. The company that manufactures Panadol had recently halted production, saying that it is no longer viable to keep producing the drug due to higher input prices. Though the drug itself, paracetamol, is still available and is being sold under other names, such is the power of the brand that the disappearance of Panadol from pharmacy shelves has been taken by many to mean that there is a shortage of medicine to treat fever and common pains. Other companies manufacturing paracetamol had also raised issues relating to pricing.
The authorities know they have a problem on their hands, but they seem to be struggling with how to fix it. Drug pricing, which is controlled through the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan, has become a political issue over the years as various parties have lobbied to block any price increases in a bid to win favour with the public. What makes matters more complicated is that Pakistan does not produce many active ingredients required to manufacture drugs, even some of the most commonly used ones, which means the industry remains highly dependent on the import of raw materials to continue production. These imports have in recent months been vulnerable to global supply shortages and disruptions, as well as currency rate depreciation. The combined effect of these factors has put drug manufacturers under pressure, as they are having difficulty meeting costs while the government does not allow them to raise prices. The prime minister has now announced that the government will subsidise paracetamol production to keep it ‘affordable’ for the masses. This is unlikely to work as a long-term fix for a cash-starved economy. At some point, the government will have to realise that the availability of drugs is sometimes more important than affordability. With dengue ripping through the country and the cold and flu season right around the corner, demand for paracetamol is expected to remain strong or even pick up in the weeks to come. The government may, by all means, take action to prevent hoarding of medicines and illicit profiteering by black marketeers. However, it needs to get the economics of the drugs market right if it wants to prevent similar crises in the future.
Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2022