Africa has no choice but to manufacture its medicines
Pharmaceutical bottles. The Covid-19 pandemic made African leaders aware of the need to develop a powerful pharmaceutical industry. Getty Images / Westend61
Text by: Olivier Rogez Follow
The Covid-19 makes African leaders aware of the need for a strong pharmaceutical industry. With growth of 11% on average over the past twenty years, this industry is booming in Tunisia. SAIPH, the Arab Society of Pharmaceutical Industries, one of the leaders in generic medicines, now intends to focus its development on sub-Saharan Africa.
The Covid-19 pandemic made African leaders aware of the need to develop a powerful pharmaceutical industry. For the moment, all of the sub-Saharan countries import nine-tenths of the drugs they consume. North Africa and South Africa cover their needs at more than seventy percent.
A first factory in Saiph, the Arab Society of Pharmaceutical Industries, is under construction in Abidjan. The know-how of these countries could therefore serve as a relay for the rest of the continent. Interview with Ramzi Sandi, Managing Director Tunisian manufacturer of generic drugs.
RFI: Did the Covid-19 pandemic, in your opinion, lead to an awareness of African leaders of the need to set up pharmaceutical industries?
Ramzi Sandi: Yes, like everywhere in the world, we saw during the Covid period the development of "every man for himself". The global economic business model and site transfers in search of more added value, to Asia in particular, should change radically after this pandemic. As far as we are concerned, at SAIPH, we have tried to anticipate by observing what was happening in China to cover our needs.
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We created a crisis unit in February to anticipate a supply side. The closure of Asia did not impact our business in terms of supply. We were able to react quickly when hydroxychloroquine was integrated into the treatment protocols for the disease in Tunisia, to quickly develop this product.
Are you dependent on Asia for the active substances in medicines?
As you know, almost the entire chemical industry has been relocated to Asia. I think, as your President Emmanuel Macron said, that the model must be changed in order to have a minimum of pharmaceutical industry relocated to Europe.
Are the Tunisian authorities aware of the need to strengthen the local pharmaceutical sector?
Yes. We have had several meetings with the Ministry of Health, and today the priority is to ensure greater production of drugs locally, whether by license contracts or by the development of generic products.
Concretely, what decisions have been made?
The state has put in place fast track (accelerated drug registration) procedures to encourage local manufacturing. You know, in Tunisia we subsidize imported products, which has an estimated cost of 260 million dinars (90 million euros), so we have no choice, the development of locally manufactured drugs is considered a sector strategic.
I think African countries have no choice. They will have to ensure minimum local coverage and then create alternative sites or supply platforms. But relying solely on the importation of drugs is not a solution, because there is a risk of other pandemics.
What level of coverage does Tunisia have?
In terms of volume, we are between 70 and 75%. And in terms of turnover, we are at 50%. The imported products are mainly oncology products which have high added value.
SAIPH is now turning to sub-Saharan Africa, a gigantic market and currently dominated by Big Pharma worldwide. Do African companies, and especially yours, have a card to play?
Export has become an integral part of our overall strategy. In the next five to ten years, external markets will be one of the important growth drivers for our company. Africa has 1.2 billion inhabitants and this figure will double quickly, the market is huge. To conquer this market, we first created a SAIPH-Tunisia holding company to be a global health player covering the majority of these therapeutic classes. And we have created a platform in Africa, the second after our factories platform in Tunisia, with SAIPH Ivoire.
Why choose Côte d'Ivoire?
Côte d'Ivoire is considered a real emerging country. For example, it has implemented health insurance, something that will double or triple the pharmaceutical market. And from our platform, we will feed sub-Saharan Africa. Relocation is important, because for specific products such as antimalarials or products with high volume and low added value, such as analgesics, the cost of transport is high.
So, the idea is to get closer to consumers, and to play the complementarity between our Tunisian factories and our Ivorian factory (the latter will be operational in 2021). We already have registered products and obtained a hundred marketing authorizations between Senegal, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, etc. For English-speaking Africa, we started with a partner during the Covid-19 period to supply chloroquine. And we have a distribution and packaging platform project in Rwanda.
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