African medicine makers pledge to work together

A hopeful new era for medicines in South Africa dawned with the launch this week of the South African Generic Medicines Association (Sagma).

Generic drugs - medicines produced to pharmacologically identical formulae as the original drugs, but after the patent period expires – are widely seen to be one of the pillars of the provision of affordable, first-class health care to the broadest possible number of patients. South Africa imports up to 70% of its generics from India and China.

Driven by the pandemics of HIV/Aids, TB and malaria, there has for some years been discussion about the benefits of local production of drugs. The launch of Sagma is the coordinated response.

Sagma's self-defined mandate is to wrestle with and find solutions for the challenges that inhibit local manufacture of generics. Amongst these are:

  • Unlevel playing fields as a result of high taxes on ingredients coming into the country for use in local manufacture, compared to low or no taxes on the import of certain complete drugs.
  • A shortage of skills and the capital necessary to upgrade existing manufacturing facilities to meet internationally-defined manufacturing standards.
  • The relatively small size of the local market, which means local manufacturers carry the cost burden of being unable to leverage economies of scale.

The challenges are considerable. Still, says Skhumbuzo Ngozwana, chair of Sagma, they're not overwhelming. "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore," he quipped at the launch, finishing the quote from George Bernard Shaw, "all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

The vision for Sagma is "to create a vibrant and self-sustaining generic pharmaceutical manufacturing industry in the Southern African Development Community (SADC)". Is this unreasonable? No, said speaker after speaker: it's difficult, but it's no pipe dream. On the contrary, it's not only desirable but necessary, said keynote speaker Joy Phumaphi, former Minister of Health of Botswana, and now representing the African Leaders Malaria Alliance.

A key message from the conference was that alongside food security, African leaders should work towards establishing medicines security for Africa's people – access to affordable, reliable, safe, effective medicines.

(Heather Parker, Health24, April 2011)

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