By Doris Obinna and Ogechukwu Agwu
Dr. Ebere Igboko Ekpunobi, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Neimeth International Pharmaceuticals Plc has lamented that almost 90 percent of malaria burden of the world is born by sub Saharan Africa, Nigeria has 25-30 percent of all the cases in the world and half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria.
She said the significance of the burden reflects in the number of deaths and cases. The Chief Executive noted that more people die of malaria than HIV yet it is preventable.
In this interview she spoke on the possibility of eradicating malaria in the country.
How have you contributed to the national effort against malaria?
So thank you very much first of all for making time to come and electing Neimeth as the company to have this discussion as you already know Neimeth has been around for many years contributing to our country’s effort in fighting diseases that affect our people a major one of which is malaria. So given a long history, a long commitment in the welfare of the people of Nigeria, it is not an accident that malaria is one of our priorities and specific to your question, how we contribute, first of all we make our voice heard working alongside the federal ministry of Health to call attention to this being an important problem also possible to eliminate and then dedicating resources to ways that we can combat it as a nation including prevention and treatment as well as awareness as a people so that we can do the right thing. So we manufacture antimalarial products, we have done so for many years and recently last year we entered into an agreement with a technical partner form China to expand our efforts in the area of prevention, preventive therapies, long lasting insecticide nets and other measures and taking advantage of our technical partners who work with the lady who won the Nobel prize for malaria two years. So we associate ourselves with people who are at the forefront of fighting this pandemic so that we can avail ourselves of cutting edge science and use it is a way that will affect our own people in Nigeria so that’s how we are contributing to the national effort against malaria.
You manufacture antimalarial drug, what edge does it have over other brand?
We manufacture the class of antimalarial called ACTs, it is the standard of care for treating malaria and right now we are as far as we know the only company that locally manufactures ACTs consistently inside Nigeria, so being that we locally manufacture it, the consistency of supply is definitely an edge because we don’t have to wait to import the things we bring it in to the country, then because it is the standard of care treatment clearly it is the drug of choice for the type of malaria that most people here are at the risk of suffering. We have it in two combinations, we a combination that is available to all ages and a combination that is convenient for adults, so when you talk about availability, it is an advantage, when you talk about convenience it is also an advantage and of course because it is the standard of care, it is clearly an efficacious therapy against malaria. So quality is also assured.
How long have you beingmanufacturing antimalarial for some time, can you be specific?
Nimartem the drug in question has been for twenty years, in the past twenty years, Nimartem came into being, before then sulfadozinetrymetoquine as you may remember we used to be Pfizer, then twenty years ago through a management change over Neimeth came to being, so one of our antimalarial was launched then. And the other one has been for over twenty years.
I used to think Pfizer is a foreign company, because I still see drugs that are produced by Pfizer, how so?
Indeed it is an American company that was in Nigeria 50 years ago and existed twenty years ago, at the time of the exit the senior management who didn’t want the valuable medicines that were produced by Pfitzer at that time to be unavailable to Nigerians came together in what is second to none, so nobody has ever done it before then and nobody as I know has done it brilliantly since then,they cut out the shares of Pfitzer and created Neimeth so that the medicines in our portfolio would remain available and Neimeth was born 20 years ago.
What is your assessment of malaria burden in the country especially in the sub Saharan part of the country?
Very significant, there are almost 90 percent of the malaria burdens of the world born by sub Saharan Africa, Nigeria has 25-30 percent of all the cases in the world and half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria so you can begin to appreciate the significance of the burden. In terms of deaths and cases, more people die of Malaria than HIV yet it is preventable and thankfully the Federal Ministry of Health is very audacious and aggressive both in setting out an objective to eliminate no longer to control but to eliminate malaria in our lifetime not too distance a future. I think that’s a laudable goal and Neimeth is fully in support of it.
Is the goal of elimination possible given the nature of our environment?
Yes, it is possible, it is not without obstacles anyway, but there are a lot of things that would warrant changes, starting from the way we leave our lives, making sure there is no stagnant water does not exist among us, using long lasting insecticide nets which has being proven to work and then taking treatment and testing for malaria parasite when you feel the symptoms so that you can be treated appropriately, so it is achievable, it is not a small feat but it is possible if we all work together.
What is your take on locally manufactured antimalarial drugs, how effective do you think they are in fighting the malaria burden?
In my assessment, local manufacturers have the capacity to produce sufficient supply of antimalarial for Nigeria; most of the local manufacturers including Neimeth do not maximally utilize our installed capacity in other for local manufacturers to maximize our capacity a lot of things have to be in place some of which will depend on the government. But there is no question in my mind that the capacity exist for local manufacturers to satisfy the need and the demand.
Are you against drug importation in the country?
Absolutely not! Because it creates a balance, we do not manufacturer every type of medicine that we need so we must be flexible in the best interest and welfare of our people to identify what we can import that we don’t have and there are classes of medicine that exist and are available for importation, so absolutely not.
In respect to anti-malarial drugs, what do you think could be the reason other companies import malaria drugs, if we have the materials for production
Well in terms of materials, all of us import raw materials even those of us who manufacture locally the active ingredients that are used are not manufactured locally so we all import raw materials but some of us import finished products and it depends on the company’s strategic plan sometimes in response to foreign exchange pressures you diversify your supply chain so the factors that affect local production are not favourable. The factors that affect importation may favour you just so that you have a balance so I can’t speak for every other company so it’s all about your strategic approach.
If you make the claim that you import raw materials how then can you make the claim that you produce your products locally?
I don’t think there is any company in Nigeria that doesn’t import some starting materials because some of our starting materials are chemicals that are not locally available at this point as Nigeria develops especially given our strong base in petrochemicals some day for sure we should be able to make our own raw materials. I am also proud to say that in our portfolio we have a product that is wholly sourced from Nigeria, all the materials used in producing that drug comes natural, it is a natural product, the plant is grown in Nigeria and we do everything concerning that product in Nigeria. Many products not just pharmaceuticals require chemicals and other materials that come from outside the country but it’s changing. In the past we also used to import packaging materials but these days we don’t have to do that because high quality packaging materials are made here so it’s a step by step affair and that’s why Neimeth are partnering with those foreign suppliers to invite them to invest their production capacity and know-how right here in Nigeria because part of our agreement with our Chinese technical partners include long term production materials in Nigeria because we believe it’s the way to go.
How do the government policies affect local production?
As always we are grateful for what the government has done and frankly we encourage them to do more because of the importance of local manufacturers not just in the provision of treatment for people in Nigeria but in offering employment to people. You know those of us who manufacture here employ labour and the government so far has started to recognize the capacity that exist for local manufacturing. At the beginning of this year, the fiscal policy that addressed some of the previous imbalance in tariff was amended to allow local manufacturers to sustain the need that is here already and to give priority in the sense that areas like antimalarial that has capacity to urge government and other buyers to recognize the capacity that exist but as you may know this is a topic of discussion because not everyone shares the view point that I have expressed to you but the Federal Ministry of Health has held several meetings where it is clear that the honourable minister is committed to hearing the local manufacturers, putting us in the best interest of the people, so currently we are working closely with the government to continue to emphasis that what is good for local manufacturers is good for Nigeria.
How many drugs do you have in your portfolio?
We have over thirty-five drugs in our portfolio that are currently licensed. And we continue to do research to bring and introduce more products but right now we have over 35 products.
How strong is your quality control system?
Very strong, as every other pharmaceuticals company subject themselves to regular inspections by National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), we also invite experts to assist us by either giving us update, we have all the necessary certifications, manufacturing practice, NAFDAC certification and recertification and given our history we are very rigorous in our quality and in our documentation. Our facility at the time it was built many years ago was a state of the art facility and so we operate on a very high standard of quality and we are proud of it.
Again, because we don’t have anybody to have any doubt about the authenticity of the drug so we are very vigilant and I have meetings with NAFDAC to find ways we can work together on a regular basis so that if there is a rumour we address it immediately. We are very aggressive with our quality control. It is very important.
What is your assessment in the regulation of pharmaceuticals sector?
My assessment is that it is evolving as is the case in other countries; we are tightening regulations which are a good thing. NAFDAC, the main regulatory body continues to work with us and other manufacturers to enlighten us, to consult with us and to assist us in upholding standards.
Have you had incidents of your drugs being faked in the open drug market?
Before my time and even now we do hear of things, because our drugs are very effective and well known so it becomes the target of people that I consider irresponsible and mean spirited who for commercial gains would put ineffective and potentially dangerous medicines out there in the name of reputable manufacturers like ourselves so yes we do have that problem, we try to do everything we can.
So what are the things you have tried to do to guard your drugs against being faked?
The most common way right now is to attach the scratch mass system so that when you scratch and call the number on the panel you can authenticate the drug, some of our products are the standard in the way they are manufacture and packaged which some very daring people try to target but we will do everything to stop them.
Have you nabbed person(s) that faked your drugs?
In my 15-months at Neimeth we have not had such a case where we have cause to man somebody but I can guarantee you we are vigilant and I will definitely makemincemeat of anyone who is daring to fake our products because we have zero tolerance for it.
Have you applied for the World Health Organisation (WHO) prequalification?
We are getting technical assistance from WHO and other consultants to help us in the process which as you may know is a long process we have not actually applied for the certification because we have not done all that needs to be done but we are fast tracking it and that is where our technical partners come in, these technical partners already have qualified medicines, and qualified ACIs (active ingredients) and pre-qualified facilities. So part of our long term strategies is to use our relationship with them to fast track where we are in that process.
Where is your factory located?
Here in Lagos in Ikeja to be precise.
What measures have you taken to check mate your products and to see that you are always ahead among other pharmaceuticals companies in terms of availability and originality?
We have a lot going for us already in that our medicines are well known and have been around for such a long time and that some of our patients. Parents have used our medicines so generations of families are familiar with Neimeth, so that is the thing we already have going for us because of the contributions of people who came before me in the current times our competitive advantage comes from availing ourselves of expertise within Nigeria so if you look at our board of directors you find out that they are people distinguished in different fields including science, former managing director of this company, so we avail ourselves of external expertise and then within Neimeth, my leadership style is to build an organization where we can leverage the best out of people emphasizing quality, emphasizing service and emphasizing return of values to shareholders by clearly articulating in every business year what our strategic imperatives are and what each part of our organization must do to be aligned and then we go back and check every quarter because we are accountable and ask ourselves, ‘how did we do?’ not just in terms of the numbers but the information behind the numbers, what is driving our numbers and so, I believe that what distinguishes us is the leadership, not just my leadership but everybody leadership because Neimeth is a company that the number of people that have contributed their long time career to build up and they are invested in good outcome for the company and if you see our staff go about their job you would know we operate like a family so when you put all these things together it makes people work harder, it makes people take appropriate risks and when we are talking about our products we are talking with enthusiasm and conviction and finally in the long run because we want to succeed today in the future we have mentioned looking for continuous development ofour portfolio, continuous improvement of our products, so that we will always have some advantage over existing brands. In other to do that we have marketing intelligencewhich avails us the opportunity to know how well our products are doing at there.