From Kemi Yesufu, Abuja
Director Special Duties at the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Dr. Abubakar Jimoh, who doubles as the spokesman has explained issue relating to recent ban of 24 agricultural products by the European Union. He also spoke on the presidential directive that NAFDAC should leave the seaports, among others issues.
In 2015, the former NAFDAC Director-General said prevalence rate of fake drugs had gone down to 3.6 percent, from 19.6 percent. What is the situation now and when is the country going to achieve the target of single digit prevalence of counterfeit drugs?
I believe the prevalence rate is dropping by the year. We are currently carrying out a national prevalence study. It is sponsored by the United States Pharmacopeia. It’s from the last survey that we conducted in 2014, that figures, which you stated, were publicly presented. The ultimate goal for NAFDAC is to replicate what we have in advanced countries, which is, less than one percent rate of substandard drug. Nigerians deserve such level safety and assurance when using drugs in the country and we believe that NAFDAC can deliver on this.
NAFDAC, in recent time, harped on its use of ICT, GSM and other relevant technologies to combat importers of counterfeited drugs. The current leadership of the agency seems to be silent on this. What is going on?
Like I mentioned earlier, the focus of NAFDAC under Mrs. Yetunde Oni has been to build on the successes of past leaderships. She is using a model that was built from Osuide, to Akunyili and Orhii. She worked with all three former heads of the agency, rising to become the Director of Administration. So, she is someone who has been active in making the agency what it is today. It, therefore, hasn’t taken too much effort for her to pick up from where her predecessor left off, especially with the use of technology in the fight against drug counterfeiting. She handles the challenges as they come because this is what administration is basically about. As I a mentioned, each head of NAFDAC painstakingly, ensured that they didn’t just veer off course; rather they built on what they inherited.
Dr. Orhii inherited a NAFDAC that Prof. Akunyili made an international brand, through transparency and unprecedented sensitisation. But it was quite difficult at times to distinguish a fake drug from the original. So the introduction of technology came to the rescue. Mrs. Oni, she has been dealing with the challenges that arise with effectively deploying technology. For example, we are trying to acquire more Truscan devices and meetings are being held with stakeholders and technology providers on how to fine-tune the use of tech devices. We’ve had different presentations and we have to critically assess them before presenting them to stakeholders. The track and trace technology is one thing NAFDAC is keen on introducing to the country. The ultimate goal is to make counterfeiting drugs very expensive and cumbersome, so the elements involved are frustrated. The easier way of doing this is to deploy layer, upon layer of technological interruptions and hurdles.
The water packaging industry, which millions OF Nigerians patronise on daily basis, has been difficult for NAFDAC to regulate, with many operators selling products they can’t vouch for. Is there hope of NAFDAC getting a grip of this sector?
NAFDAC is playing an integral role in making the distribution chain of international standard critical to the successes we recorded in regulating the pharmaceutical industry. We have tried to extrapolate the same intervention to the water packaging industry. Also, we are deploying the use of technology to authenticate products in this sector, even as water-packaging companies have joined in using technology to protect the integrity of their products. We started five years back by re-certifying packaged water (pure water) brands. About two years into the re-certification of packaged water brands, we started the use of mobile laboratories and we still went a step further by introducing motorised mobile laboratories, that enables us carry out on-the-spot tests on ‘pure water.’ We used these mobile laboratories in about 18 states.
However, you know with such interventions, people fight back through various means, including allegations coming from ‘pure water’ manufacturers. The truth is, we had to partner with a UK firm, due to paucity of funds and even when many of ‘pure water’ manufacturers loved the fact that they could randomly test their products, we started receiving petitions. Again, funding the exercise was a challenge. Ultimately, we just had to tarry a while. But beyond just authenticating products, you would recall, the results from the tour around the states gave deep insight into issues, like the quality of water being consumed. What we came up with was a scientific document, that is useful for research. We found out that water being consumed was contaminated by minerals, in areas like Sokoto and Kogi. We had shocking findings that people who drink water from private borehole, in mineral rich areas, were consuming certain levels of chemicals from these minerals. Water is life, so we will still come up with a plan to continue with sanitising, the water packaging industry.
After many years of insisting on NAFDAC operating at the seaports, the executive order issued by presidency expelled the agency. How do you intend to go round this?
We have to abide by this directive because NAFDAC is an agency of government under the Federal Ministry of Health. Ours is to comply with the marching orders. Working to meet our mandate is something we continually have to be creative about. This is not the first time we have been in this kind of situation and even if I confess to you that, cooperating with other agencies is not the same as our having physical presence in the ports, we have be creative and leverage on existing local and international platforms of cooperation. We have good working relationship with Nigerian Customs Service and the immigration service and other security agencies. We have to continually work on these platforms of inter-agency cooperation to meet up with expectations. The fact is that, the Federal Government took the decision to reduce the number of agencies at the ports to improve the ease of doing business, as this is key to diversifying the economy. The Federal Government recognised that it had to take drastic measures to provide the right atmosphere for taking Nigeria from a monolithic economy to one with multiple streams of income.
I have to reveal that NAFDAC is thinking beyond just leaving the ports in obedience to the executive order, but also working towards making the agency go beyond its scientific and regulatory role. We want to play an important role in making the sectors we regulate, major contributors to job creation and economic prosperity. So exiting the ports and finding other effective means of watching out for products that come into the country is just a step towards a NAFDAC that has repositioned itself to contribute to economic diversification. Under the current leadership of the agency, we know that we must play a key role by keeping the standards when it comes to quality control for our exports. We want to prevent what happened recently, when the European Union (EU) banned 24 agric products. We thought they were going to lift the ban, but rather, they extended it. We are conscious of international food trade politics and that’s why we want to look with a keen eye and not be bugged down with talk sanitary and phystosanitary issues. NAFDAC is working with relevant ministry to bring lasting solutions to the matter.
How exactly is NAFDAC working towards having the ban lifted by the EU? Do you have a time frame on getting this done?
We are working closely with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, the plants quarantine and the National Food Experts committee. We are doing so much quietly. The first thing we did was the retuning of our laboratories because this is cardinal to our intervention on the matter. Under the current leadership of NAFDAC, we are working assiduously towards the international accreditation of our labs. Mrs. Oni took over from Dr. Orhii, who, with the support of the US pharmacopeia, secured international accreditation for our Yaba laboratory. The Yaba laboratory is where pharmaceutical accreditation is carried out. Also not less than five of the food laboratories in Oshodi received international certification.
Under Mrs. Oni, the Agulu and Kaduna laboratory have received international accreditation. The train is now at Maiduguri and Port-Harcourt laboratories to see how soon we can get the accreditation. Like I said, the idea is for us to have our labs ready for giving testable certification for most especially, the food products to be exported from the country.
Some have expressed worry over NAFDAC having an Acting Director-General for a long period. What do you say to this?
Since its inception in 1993, NAFDAC has been very lucky with the quality of leadership it had. Right from when it was created, under the military till date, we haven’t come under undue influence. This is because, government after government, has seen NAFDAC as one of the agencies, that protects the sanctity of life. So with NAFDAC handling the scared mandate of safeguarding the health of Nigerians, our leaders inclusive, they deemed it fit not interfere with NAFDAC and this is why, over time, the agency has recorded remarkable success. Right from the time of Prof. (Gabriel) Osuide who spent about seven years, down to Prof. Dora Akunyili who stayed about the same number of years and took NAFDAC to higher heights and Dr. Paul Orhii who brought his international exposure to bear, the agency has benefited greatly from having steady leadership, that were allowed to implement the mandate given them.
For the Acting Director-General, she has been in NAFDAC right from the start and you can describe it as her having been through the college of these great leaders and she has taken off from where they stopped. Basically, she has taken the mantra of zero-tolerance to counterfeit drugs and all forms of corruption notches higher. I agree with those saying leadership is paramount in terms of achieving the agency’s mandate and this is why, I can assure stakeholders, that we have someone who is a good head. Some have even joked that the current Director-General is the reincarnate of the late Prof. Akunyili because she has redoubled efforts to ensure that importing or marketing substandard drugs and food products is very much unattractive.