Durban - A major health shake-up is on the cards with 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.
KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu told the Daily News he had already set up a task team with the Department of Health to drive the process forward amid strong indications that the production would be located in KwaZulu-Natal.
The government’s intention is not only to make medicines more accessible, but also to make South Africa less dependent on international pharmaceutical companies.
“Our national health minister has been working on this plan for a while and we are excited that this is no longer a question of if or when but has now moved towards the how,” he said in an interview.
“We have the land and the capacity to establish our own production plant to manufacture our own generic medicines which will be cheaper, more cost effective, and will allow us to use the savings in other areas of need.
“The project will also generate employment and most importantly, lead to saving millions of lives each year,” the premier said.
Mchunu also said that KZN had a chronic shortage of pharmacists, with 617 full-time pharmacists against a total of 727 posts - a 16 percent vacancy rate.
To get the project started, the provincial health department is preparing to send selected students to India, in August, to study pharmacy. Some of the group members will then take up further studies in pharmacology, which deals with drug manufacture.
KZN head of health, Dr Sibongile Zungu, said South Africa had recently become the first African country to introduce clinical pharmacology as an area of speciality.
“To address this it becomes cost-effective to send pharmacy students abroad in the short term, until we set up a campus here which will be the next phase of the project,” she said.
“India is a world leader in the production of generics. They have the IT knowledge, so it makes sense to send our students to acquire both skills, which can then be used in the production process.
“By tapping into India’s expertise we are also able to produce our own medicines without being caught up in the debate around patency rights and so on,” Zungu said.
Of the 15 students being sent to India initially, five would be given further training and phased into the manufacturing component, she said. This would then be expanded on each year.
Students in the first phase would be selected mainly from rural communities where the need for pharmacists was greatest, the plan being that they would serve in these areas on graduation.
Zungu said students would need to meet several criteria including academic potential.
South Africa currently has local subsidiaries of international pharmaceutical manufacturers which enjoy patent protection in their production.
Previous plans to establish a local ARV drug manufacturing plant in Gauteng with Swiss pharmaceutical company, Lonza, were scuppered last year when Lonza withdrew from negotiations with the government amid its own internal retrenchment of staff.
However, news of the government’s renewed efforts to establish its own pharmaceutical plant is expected to face fierce opposition from American lobby group Public Affairs Engagement (PAE).
It has openly declared it would fight South Africa’s proposed amendments to the Intellectual Property (IP) policy. The amendments, if successful, will pave the way for South Africa to produce generic medicines on a mass scale without being forced to import expensive patent-protected brands.
The PAE, which includes a consortium of pharmaceutical firms, has argued such action would discourage investment in South Africa.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has rejected this and described as “genocide” the PAE’s opposition campaign.
With the African pharmaceutical market worth more than R40 billion a year, the debate is likely to intensify.
But, Zungu remains unfazed.
“The lack of access to basic generic medicines is reason enough for us to produce our own medicines and be less dependent on imports.
“We must release ourselves from the stranglehold of the monopolies created by pharmaceutical giants and be able to cater for our own citizens.”
She said the difference between this programme and the Cuban programme involving medical students was that in the case of India, it would be initially funded by First Rand Bank, after which it would be reviewed.
The drive to establish a local drugs manufacturing plant has been 13 years in the making - after 55 members of the African Union signed what was known as the Abuja Declaration in 2001.
The declaration called for and supported the idea that Africa needed to produce its own medicines.