COVID-19: PMG-MAN Lauds CBN’s N1.1 Trillion Intervention Fund

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– Says gesture will boost self-sufficiency in drug production

As the world battles to curb the deadly COVID-19, chairman of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN), and managing director of Fidson Healthcare Plc, Dr Fidelis Ayebae, has praised the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for the release of N1.1 trillion naira health sector intervention fund, explaining that such an intervention would further empower major stakeholders in the health sector to work more towards ameliorating the challenges posed to the citizenry by the virus.

Ayebae, who recently spoke in an exclusive interview with Pharmanews in his Lagos office, said although the intervention fund was meant for the entire healthcare sector, a large chunk of it would go to the local pharmaceutical manufacturers to enable them scale up their capacity to meet up with local drugs need of the country, especially as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19: PMG-MAN Lauds CBN’s N1.1 Trillion Intervention Fund
Dr Fidelis Ayebae

The PMG-MAN boss, who regretted that the capacity of local pharmaceutical manufacturers had been hampered over the years by issues such as lack of patronage by government and citizens, said the day of reckoning seems to have come with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has not only crippled drug importation but has shown the need for nations to strive to be self-sufficient in local drugs production to, at least, cater for their people.

Sufficiency in local drugs manufacturing, he maintained, is a national security issue that must be taken very seriously, especially in view of emergencies such as the rampaging coronavirus.
Below is the complete interview:

The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN) was established primarily to protect the interests of local pharmaceutical manufacturers and to advance the cause of local pharmaceutical manufacturing. Looking at the group over the years, how much of its objectives do you think have been achieved and what are some of the landmarks that signpost these achievements?

As somebody who has been in this industry for 25 years, I want to doff my hat for the vision of the founding fathers of PMG–MAN. People like Mazi Ohuabunwa. I want to thank all the past chairmen for keeping faith with the founding goals of the PMG-MAN.

PMG-MAN has kept faith with the aims and objectives for which it was set up, like you rightly articulated, to cater to advocacy issues that concern local manufacturers in general because everybody cannot go and advocate for themselves in the advocacy space – be it NAFDAC, PCN, government, National Assembly or others. We have kept faith with this and score very high marks. Each and every past chairman did well to advance this cause and I hope by the time I bow out, I would have contributed my quota.

As for the landmarks, it is easy to say so many big things but it is more significant to note that for an industry to be sustained for as long as we have, we are doing the little things that matter. Whether it is in setting the standards that everybody should abide with, and cascading it from the regulator to the rest of the industry players; whether it is ensuring that patronage is lifted from a very low level to something encouraging.

Talking about patronage, first of all, it started with a high percentage of using locally made drugs many years ago and then the influx of imported drugs reduced the percentage utilisation of locally made drugs vis-a-vis imported drugs to about 80:20 at some point – 80 per cent for imported drugs, 20 per cent for locally made drugs. But, today, it is slowly inching up to the extent that empirical evidence shows that we are now 40:60 – 40 per cent local and 60 per cent imported.

The fact that we are going up shows the work of PMG-MAN in consistently pushing made-in–Nigeria products and consistently pushing government to declare drugs as a national security item. We also managed to put on import exclusion list about 17 products that can be produced locally several years ago.

Also, PMG-MAN singlehandedly, during the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) era, supplied the need of this country. It delivered every single thing that was ordered by PTF. It means that we have been there consistently, pushing for long. We have done so many things. And, as I said, what is important is that we have done those little things that have sustained the industry.

In the last 10 years, there have not been more than five of our members that have gone extinct. We also have pushed for WHO–GMP certification and we scored four. In Africa, we are the only country that at some point had four. No other country in Africa has achieved that feat.

Why has it been difficult achieving drug sufficiency in Nigeria? What are the limitations to our capacity to achieve this?

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Capacity, simply interpreted, is a business grown from a mustard seed to become an oak tree. Several factors are responsible. We are at a point of watershed, where we produce not less than 40 per cent of the drugs we consume and about 60 per cent being imported and we will flip that picture in the next two years, given what is going on.

Some reasons I can quickly tell you include patronage. According to our extant laws, in every tender for government purchases, 70 per cent of the content must be locally produced products. That has never happened. They have never kept faith with it. Even when they were buying anti-retroviral drugs with Nigerian money and not donor funds, they were insisting on WHO pre-qualified products, until PMG-MAN fought and they accepted. But the amount of patronage has reduced substantially such that, today, government, which should be buying products for teaching hospitals and others have relented because of the paucity of fund.

If you check the percentage allocation for healthcare in Nigeria, compared to other countries, you will come to the realisation that the government has not prioritised the health needs of the citizenry. And the modernisation of the vehicles that are within the value chain, they have not prioritised them to be able to deliver value to the country. Therefore, the amount they are budgeting is very small; so there is so much that they cannot buy from us.

But the most pitiable one is that Nigerians unfortunately still behave like colonial stooges. We prefer foreign products to Nigerian products. Why should anybody in Nigeria today prefer to buy imported paracetamol, when you have a lot of locally made brands that meet international standards? We have Emzor Paracetamol, M&B Paracetamol, Fidson Paracetamol and others. Why would anybody bring in a derivative of paracetamol through the back door? It is because they know that our people prefer to buy imported products? Yet, we know that we all manufacture from the same pharmacopoeia. It’s either from the U.S pharmacopoeia, Indian pharmacopoeia or the British pharmacopoeia.

Why are Nigerians not patriotic enough to develop their home-grown industries by patronising products coming from here? Until the mindset of Nigerians changes to know that, with pharmaceutical products, nobody can cut corners. When you are a manufacturer you manufacture according to the standard prescribed for that product. We can only continue to expand when there is patronage and this also means that there is a payback for investment and so you can reinvest to expand – which some of us are now doing.

Again, critically speaking, we have reached a point also in regulation where we can safely say that NAFDAC is highly respected all over the world now and has reached a stringent regulator status out there. So, Nigerians have no fear whatsoever as to the quality of locally made products.

Finally on this matter, local manufacturing is the only panacea or recipe to address fake and substandard drugs. You can’t fake, within the confines of a local manufacturer’s compound, any drug. The only way fake products can be removed from Nigeria, is when most of our products are locally made. That is why I urge those of us in local manufacturing to continue to struggle and not give up. We can see that the day of reckoning has come with COVID-19 and everybody is looking up to local pharmaceutical manufacturers for help.

I also encourage our friends that are importing to wear the Nigerian cap, the patriotism cap. This is how the Indians and the Chinese got to their current level of self-sufficiency in almost everything. Nigeria should become less of a rent dependent economy and become a manufacturing hub for Nigeria and West Africa.

Can you please tell us more about the fund that was recently released by CBN to stakeholders in the health sector and what it is meant for?

Let me use this medium to thank the CBN profusely for taking the initiative to establish this intervention for the health sector and to single out pharmaceutical manufacturers for a large chunk of the amount that will end up being disbursed. The white paper is out. We know that it is not only for pharmaceuticals; we know that other sectors of the healthcare are also accessing. But a large chunk certainly will go to local pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The fund is established for two major reasons. One is for immediate response towards ameliorating the suffering of the citizens caused by this pandemic. That is, for local manufacturers to respond as quickly as possible in providing those materials that will be needed.

As at now, in anticipation of this coming fund, we have gone to borrow money to invest in some of these things. For example, a week ago, ordinary hand sanitizers were very expensive but today, the price has crashed because local manufacturers have taken initiative. Even before President Donald Trump of USA made the pronouncement on chloroquine as one of their treatment protocols, most local manufacturers that had APIs for chloroquine had already started manufacturing. So, today, chloroquine is there and we can meet national needs, just as we can meet national needs for the 17 products that were banned from importation.

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The second reason, which is immediate, is for us to be able to upgrade our facilities and upscale our capacities. But the longer or medium term drive is for us to be able to scale up our capacities to the extent that we are able to meet the drug needs of Nigeria, such that if there is ever a closure of the world by a pandemic like this again, Nigeria will, to a large extent, be self-sufficient in the drugs that we need, in the API and in the intermediates that we need. Government also expects us to collaborate among ourselves and see how we can begin to manufacture some APIs.

Talking about Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs), some have said that even if we have the capacity to produce some of these drugs, the local industry does not have the required API industry to provide the much needed support. What things do you think we need to put in place to have a viable API industry providing support for the pharma industry?

The question is not whether we are backward in that area or not. You see, unless there is an incentive to invest in something, people won’t just invest in it. Like I said before, Nigeria is a rent-taking, lotto-playing entity. People do quick deals and make money. Those are the things that we thrive at and nation-building is abandoned to government. Government alone cannot build a nation.

What does API require? It is not much – the intermediates and others are things that you can get from petrochemical plants. If Dangote has not reached a level where we can get those intermediates, we can import them until it becomes viable for a Dangote plant to produce them. Nigeria is slowly but surely getting industrialised. API is not a problem. I assure you that in the next few years, the first API would have been established in Nigeria by members of PMG-MAN in Nigeria.

Aside from the release of this intervention fund, what other steps do you think government can take to improve local manufacturing? Some people have advocated for tax holiday and other measures. What are your views?

I don’t want to dwell on things like that and the reasons is because Nigeria as it is now is broke. Oil is now selling for about $24 a barrel. Where are they going to get the money to do some of these things before we get into bankruptcy?
However, I will suggest a few things and we will be fine. What must we do to consistently invest in our future as a people? One, we have taken a bold step to provide the five per cent emergency intervention fund. Can this fund remain perpetual industrial intervention fund that people can access when they have serious projects?
Two, one of the greatest disservices that government has done to this country is that, for about 50 years, we have only two functional seaports in a country where the sea traverses about one-third of our border line. From Lagos all the way to Calabar, the sea traverses this area. Why would we have only two seaports catering for the import needs of this country from the 1980s till now?

Before Tincan Island Port was built, only Apapa Port was catering for the needs of the country. After Tincan Island, I think we built about two other ports – Onne Port and Calabar Port – to take off the pressure but guess what? Somebody forgot to dredge the sea so that large ships could use those ports. It’s all very crazy and it’s all due to lack of planning. The reason products are expensive is that both finished goods and raw materials land in the ports and there is so much bottleneck in clearing, such that the goods stay at the port longer that it took for the goods to sail from the country where they are imported to this place.
Because all the containers that Nigeria is using are coming from these ports, the entire Apapa axis is so congested that vehicles cannot move. In fact, the cost of transporting a container from Apapa to Ikeja is higher than that of delivering something from Lagos to Sokoto and Maiduguri. At a point, when there was a heavy logjam, it cost about N800,000 to N900,000 to bring a container to Ikeja. Today, it costs about N500,000. It doesn’t have to be like this and there are also too many demands by too many agents.

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So, we must sit down and ask, why must we be hurting ourselves? We need to create a task force to decongest the port completely and make it possible for people to do business. We, as manufacturers, are sick and tired of what is going on.

We should also focus on dredging and opening up all the other seaports so that only containers heading for the south-west and part of the north are cleared from Lagos; while those meant for the east and part of the North are cleared from the south-south ports. Once we do this, business will become a lot easier.

We must not become businesspeople that have become a burden to government. We cannot be asking for all sorts of rebates and incentives because, today, government doesn’t have money. So, let us still continue to pay our taxes. I am not a great fan or advocate of removal of all sorts of taxes because, ultimately, statistics have shown that Nigeria is one of the countries that pay the least taxes in the world.

What do you think the government can do to encourage contract manufacturing as a way of discouraging importation?

Government, through NAFDAC, is trying to encourage people who want to import and trade until they can establish their own factory to do two things – firstly manufacture where they can find but in a short while bring it to local manufacturing, where they can collaborate with existing local manufacturers for contract manufacturing.

Contract manufacturing is the place to begin but, unfortunately, that wasn’t the tradition before now; but it is now becoming the tradition. As you know, GSK and Sanofi have signed up with May & Baker and Fidson to contract manufacture their products to be sold in Nigeria and the rest of West Africa. With time, if they find out we are keeping faith with quality and prompt delivery, they will open the space to buy more from us. It is a good prospect.
Other importers are also beginning to reach out to local manufacturers. This happens where you have created an investment opportunity; where people will have confidence to invest more in the industry. As I speak, we, at Fidson, are investing, in the next one year, a billion naira, beginning from November last year, in expending our capacity and expanding our infrastructure to cater to those contract manufacturing that we have signed, either for local players or multinationals.

In fact, NAFDAC, as a government agency, is encouraging that and they are coming up with a protocol for that to happen as often as possible because that does two things: First, it expands our capacity and ability to compete, in terms of our economy of scale, with the foreign manufacturers to an extent.

NAFDAC is a very friendly organisation. They feel and wear the shoes of local manufacturers. They know where the shoe is pinching us. If not for NAFDAC, all local manufacturers would have died. If you remember, it was Prof. Akunyili that came and sanitised the sector to ensure that we were not overtaken by fake and substandard drugs. So, business became interesting for local manufacturers again. The current Director General, Prof. (Mrs) Mojisola Adeyeye, is also doing her best to sustain and improve the momentum.
So, NAFDAC is not our problem. It is Nigerians that should buy made-in-Nigeria products and CBN should try to bring down the interest rate and make forex more available for local manufacturers because our input materials are imported, ranging from machineries to raw materials.

How do you think all stakeholders can better manage the COVID-19 pandemic?

My advice is simple: Government should ensure that information is coming from only one source. Information is coming from too many sources and this is confusing the people.

Let Nigerians be wise. Follow the protocols established by the officials because the protocols are to save our own lives. If you do not have an essential thing, don’t go out. If you don’t have sanitizer, no problem, make use of ordinary soap and water. It is good. It breaks down the virus. If you get home, wash your hands, your face and your body properly before you start showing love by hugging your children or spouses.

If you travel, try to isolate yourself for the prescribed period before mixing up. If we observe this simple protocols, the problem will be gone within a short time.

People should know where to go and get tested if they are feeling sick. Efforts are being concentrated so much on the cities, forgetting that the rural areas are also heavily populated. But the government is trying because this is a terrain that nobody living today has passed through before, except during the Ebola scourge.

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