Friday 13 June 2014


Independent generic drugs manufacturing: Can South Africa pull it off?

Not too long ago, fellow Leo, Caroline Ncube, shared the news about South Africa's restructured cabinet, from which this Leo learnt that the outspoken Health Minister is still in power. It means that we should expect proactive health policies in South Africa such as the news reaching us via Independent Online (IOL). The question is: Can South Africa pull it off? [Afro Leo reminds me that South Africa did deliver on the World Cup]
In summary, IOL states that: "....South Africa set to establish its own, independent pharmaceutical plant in the next five years, aimed at making life-saving drugs cheaper for millions of citizens in need." It then elaborates that the the government currently operates local joint ventures (PPP) with Big Pharma to manufacture certain medicines/vaccines (e.g. here) and that a previous plan to establish a local manufacturing plant for anti-retroviral medicines failed last year. Further, it states that the country currently lacks adequate human capacity in pharmacology - something that is being addressed with the help of the 'world's pharmacy', India. In all, the idea behind this grand plan is to increase access to affordable medicines, create jobs, and make the country less dependent on imports. [Who are the largest exporters?]

Good health is key to economic growth
It is generally accepted (also see e.g., here and here) that there is a link between the health of a nation's population and its economic development. [Afro Leo understands (also via here) that the UK Government created the National Health Service (NHS) because it believed that a population with good health will drive the much needed economic growth after the second world war] In a recent piece titled, 'Revitalizing Africa's Pharmaceutical Industry', the African Development Bank Group (ADBG) succinctly explained why African countries should invest more in the healthcare sector - particularly, local pharmaceutical capacity. Well, ADBG will be pleased with this news as well as with Morocco - a country looking to become the leading manufacturer of quality generic drugs.

Access to affordable medicines - A global issue
More importantly, this news also reminded this Leo about Max Planck Institute's Declaration on patents. Indeed, with access to affordable medicines, human lives can be saved for a few months or many yearsMany, this Leo included, immediately think of developing countries - especially in Africa - when we see or hear the phrase 'access to medicines'. That would be expected since there are more articles such as this one. However, what is quickly forgotten - often quite rightly when comparisons are made - is that the access to medicines problem also exists in developed countries.

Take the UK as an example: there are news headlines (unsurprisingly, some are inaccurate) such as 'NICE rejects kidney cancer drug everolimus' and 'England's cancer drugs fund under strain as NICE rejects oncology medicines'.[More of these can be found herehereherehereherehere and here] Most argue that the patent regime (due to R&D) plays a role behind these headlines. Could these be used to validate Max Planck's observation that IP (especially, patent) problems are not exclusive to developing countries? 

There are tricky (often moral) questions in the access to medicines debate including the impact of IP rights on affordability. Anyway, if this news is true, time will tell if it's a good idea for the government to be handling this sort of project or to focus on creating conducive and favourable conditions for the private sector to deliver the grand plan. [Afro Leo thinks that governments often like to build and, many years later, hand over to the private sector to enjoy]
To see NICE's decisions on medicines and other related medical products, click here
For a short summary of NICE's rejections, especially cancer medicines, is here



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