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Drug Import: National Security and Self-sufficiency in Medicine Production in Nigeria

The novel coronavirus pandemic has highlighted Nigeria’s longstanding vulnerability to national security risk over continued reliance on imports of pharmaceutical raw materials and finished products needs of the country.

At the onset of global lockdown, the Indian government ordered its pharmaceutical companies to stop exporting 26 drugs and pharmaceutical ingredients, most of them antibiotics. Similarly, South Korea, Germany, Taiwan and others clamped down on exports of masks and other protective gear as well as diagnostic commodities over worries that their own supplies will fall short.

Over one hundred of Nigerian health workers on the frontlines in the treatment and containment of COVID-19 in Nigeria were infected as a result of unavailability of personal protective equipment (PPE) owing to reliance on import.

A recent market survey conducted by a national daily shows a spike in the cost of essential medicines and an imminent scarcity of drugs with possible high risk to the health of the citizenry.

Beyond global pandemic as a consequence of medicine scarcity, there are also concerns of possible deployment of scarcity as a weapon to settle scores in the event of strained diplomatic relations between the importing and exporting countries.

In his welcome address at the 90th conference of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria held in Umuahia, Abia State, in 2017, Pharm. Ahmed Yakasai, the then PSN president warned that a nation that does not strive towards self-sufficiency in medicine production risks vulnerability to perishing at the altar of its enemies who just need to lace some of its fast-selling lines with poisons to inflict substantial mortality.

The national security risks of increased Chinese dominance of the global API market are currently igniting growing concern in America. Christopher Priest, the acting deputy assistant director for health care operations and Tricare for the Defence Health Agency, once hinted that the White House National Security Council is trying to identify medications most at risk if the Chinese decide to use drug supply as a weapon.

But as the Trump administration’s trade war with China heats up, a leading Chinese economist gave voice to the worst fears of U.S. “China is the world’s largest exporter of vitamins and antibiotic raw materials,” he said, according to an NBC News translation. “Once the export is reduced, the medical systems of some developed countries will not work.”

Supporters of reducing reliance on import have used recent reports of contamination of prescription medicines to highlight what they say is a potential source of security concern.

The epidemic of substandard and falsified medicines that has kept NAFDAC on its toes for years on end has not been easy to conquer because the illegal business thrives with full backing of the manufacturers.

Appallingly, what the country can boast of in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process is only water, which accounts for insignificant percentage of raw materials needs. What a shame!

As the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector in the country stands today, if China or India that the country rely on for over 70 per cent imports shut the door on exports of core components to make our medicines, within months our pharmacy shelves would become bare and our health care system would cease to function.

In the light of these potential national security possibilities the choices before us to avert impeding disaster are limited.

The coronavirus outbreak has therefore made clear we must combat Nigeria’s supply chain vulnerabilities and dependence on China and India in fuelling medicine needs of our healthcare facilities.

If we want to reduce that dependence, there is no easy fix to the problem. Government commitment to change the status quo is a very strong first step in incentivising domestic production.

The recent CBN N100 billion stimulus package to the pharmaceutical industry and subsequent N550 million special grants for research and development of home grown solutions to disease outbreaks are laudable. But government needs to do more to ensure that the sector is firmly rooted to contribute to national development among other obligations.

Therefore there is no other time for authorities in government in Nigeria to see medicine self-sufficiency in Nigeria as an urgent imperative option than now.

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