For now, government should remove bottlenecks on drug importation

In January last year, the Chairman, Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN), Dr. Okey Akpa made a case for drug security in Nigeria. He asked the federal government to increase local production of essential drugs from the present 40 per cent to 75 per cent, and that at least N300 billion be injected into the sector to enable players in the pharmaceutical industry look inward for the production of medicines rather than rely solely on importation. In aligning with this interest and that of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) which suggested policies that would promote local manufacturing of medicines, the federal government jacked up tax for importation of essential drugs up to 20 per cent as part of measures to encourage pharmaceutical firms to manufacture their medicines locally.

Although local drug manufacturers are making concerted efforts to increase production despite obvious environmental challenges like power and high foreign exchange rates, drug availability still remains low. But should the country experience a surge in COVID-19 cases, as seen in Italy, Spain or the United States, it will lay bare Nigeria’s lack of drug security, and at which point it may be too late to encourage importation of essential medicines. This is why the federal government must act quickly.

Countries like US, Spain and United Kingdom, despite having an appreciable level of drug security, are already grappling with low availability. Fears are therefore being raised that the country risks running out of current stock of pharmaceutical supply within the next three to five months, especially in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. If prediction by the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi is anything to go by, Lagos alone may record 39,000 cases of COVID-19 if residents refuse to obey social distancing and the ‘stay-at-home’ order. This, no doubt, will result in a major national crisis, especially with the myriads of bottlenecks associated with importation of essential medicines, and the inability of local manufacturers to produce to capacity even in times of peace. Now that we have a global crisis that would affect the importation of some essentials, it would become even more difficult.

It is a notorious fact that 80 per cent of the medicament consumed in Nigeria is imported. But with policy somersaults, requisite infrastructural deficit, including government’s decision to impose a 20 per cent tax on imported medicament, the country continues to swim against the tide to provide drug security for its population. A market survey conducted by some pharmaceutical organisations revealed scarcity and astronomical increase in prices of commonly used drugs such as Amlodipine, Vitamin B complex injection and others. Face masks and hand-sanitisers are also in short supply.

Nigeria cannot afford to relent in preparing for drug availability at this crucial time. In January, the Joint External Evaluation (JEE) of the International Health Regulations placed Nigeria’s capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to public health threats at 46 per cent in 2019. To tackle that challenge, the federal government should encourage importation of essential medicines at this time by removing the 20 per cent tax on antibiotics, anti-fungal, anti-malaria and antihypertensive drugs such as penicillin, azole, and diuretic agents. Since the country lacks the requisite infrastructure and active ingredients to manufacture the aforesaid drugs, banning them as being rumoured will be counter-productive at this time.

In all, it is time the federal government removed bottlenecks on importation of drugs. The federal government should also devise other effective ways of making sure that Nigeria is not at any time cut off from the supply of important drugs, especially as the threat from COVID-19 pandemic stares us in the face.