Curbing imports of substandard medicines – The Sun Nigeria

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The recent report that some Indian pharmaceutical companies sold over US$1.60 billion worth of substandard drugs in Nigeria’s markets in two years has raised public health concerns in the country. It should also serve as a wake-up call for the government to revamp the local pharmaceutical industry and make the country less dependent on imported medicines. The report followed complaints from the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC) that the influx of counterfeit medicines by some unscrupulous Indian companies, condoned by some Nigerian importers, is causing serious health problems in the country. NAFDAC has also accused Indian drugmakers of unethical and unprofessional behavior.

Following the allegation and to avoid a possible diplomatic row, a meeting between NAFDAC officials and the Indian Pharmaceutical Export Promotion Council (Pharmexcil) was recently held in Abuja to address the issue. That the alleged importation of counterfeit medicines persists despite existing pre-shipment analysis and the appointment of an agent by NAFDAC in Mumbai, India means that more drastic measures must be taken to effectively stop the ugly trend. Statistics show that drug exports to Nigeria amounted to US$448 million in 2020, US$573 million in 2021, and US$588 million between January and April 2022. Under the moratorium, any shipment violating the rule will be confiscated upon arrival in Nigeria, whether by airlines or by ship, with sanctions on the misleading importers and manufacturing exporters. Such firms also run the risk of being blacklisted in Nigeria.

The moratorium comes a year after the federal government approved import duty waivers for medical equipment and supplies to bolster healthcare infrastructure in Nigeria in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to NAFDAC, it has now been discovered that some unscrupulous importers used this disclaimer to smuggle in counterfeit medicines disguised in containers as medical supplies. For some time, NAFDAC Director-General Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye has raised concerns that over-reliance on foreign manufactured goods, including essential medicines, is not helping the economy. The alarm is legitimate. Local pharmaceutical companies need to be given the boost they need. Currently, they have little capacity to manufacture medicines, making them dependent on Indian pharmaceutical companies. This has also depleted Nigeria’s foreign exchange reserves.

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It is time that NAFDAC and other relevant agencies redouble their efforts in ensuring that all drug imports are carefully monitored both before shipment and at the destination level. Undoubtedly, the proliferation of substandard medicines is one of the causes of unnecessary mortality and morbidity, as well as the loss of public confidence in the country’s healthcare sector. Counterfeit and substandard medicines pose a major threat to achieving Millennium Development Goals 4, 5 and 6, which aim to significantly reduce child mortality.

More steps should be taken to screen for counterfeit medicines. In 1998, the federal government took steps to restrict the manufacture and sale of counterfeit medicines by enacting legislation that would make it a criminal offense. These initial efforts lacked broad political support and enforcement. As a result, they were ineffective in achieving the goals. According to recent reports, about 50 percent of medicines in the country are counterfeit.

However, there is no doubt that NAFDAC tries to address this issue by ensuring quality control and monitoring. The agency says it has seven well-equipped laboratories across the country, each costing around N300 million, to check for the threat. While this is commendable, the labs need to be equipped with more functional devices that will make them more effective. Laboratories should always test and certify the quality, safety, potency and integrity of regulated products, both imported and locally manufactured. This is necessary to avoid counterfeiting.

It’s good news that the agency has returned to the ports after a few years’ absence. This will help reduce the flow of low-quality drugs. But the importers and cabal behind such illicit transactions are not backing down, despite the presence of NAFDAC and other government agencies at various entry points in the country. Dangerous drugs are sometimes shipped as building materials, electrical appliances, and computer supplies. For this reason, all pharmaceuticals and other regulated products that may be harmful to health must be properly controlled at the entrance. That requires more surveillance of drug trafficking inside and outside the country. Stricter measures are needed to deal with the importation of substandard medicines into the country.

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