Feature Generic Drugs

Can (and should) Africa make its own medicines?

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h2178 (Published 28 April 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2178
  1. Mara Kardas-Nelson, freelance journalist, USA
  1. marajenn{at}gmail.com

Africa has a huge burden of disease but makes few of its own drugs. Mara Kardas-Nelson reports on the region’s nascent pharmaceutical industry and its chances of success

Support for Africa producing medicines is in vogue these days. The World Health Organization executive director, Margaret Chan, supports it.1 So does Michel Sidibé, head of UNAIDS. “The goal is to address health inequities and build capacity to meet supply shortages for essential health commodities that cannot be sourced reliably and sustainably from outside the continent,” they wrote last year.1 Major international organisations and donors, from the UN Industrial Development Organization (Unido)2 to the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation,3 are providing technical assistance to make local production happen, and the African Union has put together a business plan to spur its implementation.4

The rationale for local production is simple: it is assumed that big donors bankrolling many of Africa’s programmes for HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, three of the continent’s biggest killers, won’t stick around forever. Africa imports 70% of its drugs,5 and if African countries have to pick up more of the tab, some drugs could instead be produced at home, bolstering local economies. Local production might also provide a more steady supply of medicines, ensuring that drugs are immediately available during local health emergencies and even in the face of international shocks, such as when the Chinese government closed down its chemical companies during the Beijing Olympics, leading to shortages of active pharmaceutical ingredients used by some African countries.6

Local production could also give greater control to overstretched African regulators, which are battling against low quality drugs, sometimes made in far-off factories that are difficult to monitor. African companies, governments, and international organisations that support local production say the aspiration is for Africa …

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