NAFDAC DG, Dr. Paul Orhii
As drug manufacturers and end users grapple with the proliferation of counterfeit drugs in the country, the new collaboration among the stakeholders over the use of technology in combating the menace of fake drugs seems the most appropriate method to ward off merchants of such drugs, writes Festus Akanbi
Apart from the paucity of investment capital, another major problem that usually features on the list of obstacles to private initiatives in the nation’s manufacturing sector is the activity of promoters of counterfeit products in the country. Economic analysts contend that none of the various sectors of the manufacturing industry is spared of the activities of manufacturers and importers of fake products. The immediate fallouts of the operations of these economic saboteurs include loss of huge chunk of revenue and loss of consumers’ confidence among others.
For instance, the closure of the two leading tyre-manufacturing firms in Nigeria, Michelin and Dunlop Nigeria Plc, was linked to the influx of substandard tyres. Market watchers said as used tyres found their way into the market, patronage for genuine products ebbed with the corresponding fall in revenue streams by the two hitherto profit-making firms.
Another manufacturing sector that has suffered heavily from the activities of promoters of fake products is the pharmaceutical industry. Sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals is a growing trend, widely recognised as a public health risk and a serious concern to public health officials, private companies, and consumers.
In some countries, counterfeit prescription drugs comprise as much as 70 per cent of the drug supply and have been responsible for thousands of deaths in some of the world’s most impoverished nations, according to the World Health Organisation.
Counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs are fraudulently produced or mis-labelled medicines purchased by consumers who believe them to be legitimate. These drugs can cause a range of serious health concerns. Fake pills may look nearly identical to their genuine counterparts, but may be incorrectly formulated and produced in substandard conditions. Industry operators said such fake drugs are, by definition, not subject to the same regulatory scrutiny as legitimate medications. The drugs often have incorrect amounts of active ingredients, if those ingredients are present at all, and are illegal in developed countries.
Large but Vulnerable Market
Unfortunately, genuine local and international drug manufacturers say they have nothing much to show for the rising population in Nigeria as substantial chunk of the market sphere is in the hand of fake drug producers and distributors.
Lending credence to this was the General Manager, North-East Africa, Sanofi-Aventis Nigeria Limited, Mr. Paolo Agbotounou, who said genuine producers of pharmaceutical products had not been benefiting from the vast size of the Nigerian market.
He said: “I initially said the pharmaceutical market in Nigeria was vast but it has also made it vulnerable to counterfeiting and drug faking. It is also full of imports that are of substandard quality. But to ensure safety, pharmaceutical companies must not compromise their ethics. Apart from guaranteeing that you have quality products, you must also fight counterfeits.”
He added: “We must subject our products in the market to scientific analysis periodically. Whenever there is a suspicion, we collect them and send them back to our laboratories and also collaborate with NAFDAC to ensure their originality.” He described counterfeiting as one of the major challenges facing drug manufacturers in Nigeria. According to him, “The Nigerian market is a place where people bring in a lot of products. Nigeria is playing a role of a big country in Africa that is open to many investors and products. But the question is- are they all ethical? We must insist on ethical practices and standard practices, that is the major challenge.”
However, analysts say as the stakeholders in the pharmaceutical industry begin to adopt the use technology to combat the scourge, there seems to be a growing level of optimism that a crackdown on fake drug merchants will pay off after all.
An arrangement being driven by the National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) with the support of a number of pharmaceutical manufacturers is set to reduce the sale of counterfeit drugs in the country.
Today, when you buy certain packs of medicine you can instantly authenticate them with a basic mobile phone and a free text message to any of the major telecoms networks. You get a response back in just a few seconds. According to reports, industry operators and NAFDAC are working towards making all malaria drugs authenticable in this way by next year. The system introduced by a Nigerian company called mPedigree Network with support from Hewlett Packard, the multinational IT company based in Palo Alto, California, works by combining cloud computing technology with advanced serialisation-printing. This fascinating process enables the drug company to give a unique code to each pack of medicine and to track it across the entire market individually. Every authentication in every production batch is tracked and the results aggregated through this powerful technology to prevent counterfeiters from exploiting any part of the distribution network.
According to Bright Simons, Founder and President of mPedigree Network, several Nigerian pharmaceutical companies are deploying the technology following a call by NAFDAC for them to compliment its other efforts against fake medicines. Not surprisingly, mPedigree Network has won many awards from prestigious organisations such as the World Economic Forum and the Rockefeller and UN Foundations.
Partners in Progress
The mPedigree boss listed some of the manufacturing firms that have keyed into the service to include Fidson Pharmaceuticals and Neimeth Pharmaceuticals.
Simons disclosed that “May & Baker has completed a pilot but we have not completed discussions with them on the modality for applying the unique ID. Swisspha is also conducting feasibility studies. We initiated a feasibility discussion with Emzor but the company has halted the process for internal reasons. As you already know NAFDAC itself has conducted pilots with Biofem, GSK and Greenlife.”
He believed that that innovation would not only save Nigerians from the dangers of fake drugs, but will go a long way in improving the fortune of drug manufacturers in the country.
According to research reports, Nigerian pharmaceutical companies may lose up to 40% of their total revenues to counterfeiters who have infiltrated their distribution network.
An October 2011 report by Gallup indicated that up to 83% of Nigerians claimed to have encountered a counterfeit drug. The level of confidence in the industry must clearly have been falling all the time. Analysts have therefore argued that the adoption of technology by the nation’s pharmaceutical industry to address a serious problem that has been weakening their revenues and damaging their brands show clearly that technology has a powerful role to play in transforming corporate productivity in Nigeria and that some industries at least understand its transformative power.
The only question is whether enough industries and enough companies will begin taking technology seriously early enough for the trend to help shake up Nigeria’s sluggish transformation. Furthermore, the United Nations global update on the fight against fake and sub-standard drug issued recently revealed that Nigeria had only achieved five percent success in her effort to combat the scourge, which had contributed immensely to the rising mortality in the country.
It is believed that the use of technology in detecting fake drugs is the greatest measure so far adopted by government to safeguard the health of Nigerians even as public health experts believe that such will go a long way in reducing the volume of fake and substandard drugs in circulation.
Asked to comment on the popularity of the technology-driven counter measure, Simons said: “Whilst awareness of the service has grown considerably amongst drug manufacturers in Nigeria over the past year, there is still considerable capacity building that needs to be done to enhance their data management systems to match the requirements of a service that is based on tracking individual packs of product rather than batches, which is the format of data-keeping manufacturers are currently used to.
“Similarly, awareness amongst pharmacists who have not in the past been seen as part of quality assurance in Nigeria needs to grow dramatically over the next few years as they are the most effective educators of consumers and patients.
“We have already been in serious discussions with some members of the cosmetics industry, as well as the infant care industry. Generally our focus is on those products that will pose severe health and safety challenges for consumers and patients should they be widely counterfeited.”
On what informed the partnership between his organisation and the regulatory authorities in Nigeria, the mPedigree boss said, “While the regulatory agencies have invested a lot of time, manpower, and resources into the campaign to rid Nigeria of fake and counterfeit medicines, they cannot stem this tide alone; the country is much too big and in many places too densely populated. The strategy should be about using these same demographic factors to address the problem: bringing consumers on board the campaign. Consumers have the greatest stake in rooting out counterfeit medicines.
Empowering them to check and report the presence of counterfeit medicines should amount to a massive detection net being cast across the market. It is the best and most sustainable way to limit the circulation of these dangerous products.” THISDAY sought to know if there was any provision to beam searchlight on imported goods as a way of checking the proliferation of substandard products?, Simons said his organisation is currently working with highly reputable and regulator-vetted manufacturers abroad, in major source-countries like India, to apply the technology to medicines made in those countries before they are exported to Nigeria.
“As NAFDAC continues to support the deployment of the technology, the hope is that more overseas manufacturers of medicines will submit to the requirement to apply the consumer-verification technology to products bound for Nigeria,” he said.