The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) says on January 2nd 2013 any anti malarials that does not have "scratch-and-text" technology will be forcefully taken off the shelf. It does not matter whether it is efficacious and with long shelf life.
But those who sell anti malarial drugs and should directly be involved in the implementation of this directive have not got it passed down to them. It is therefore doubtful the workability of this move.
NAFDAC said it will mop up from circulation by seizing and confiscating anti malarial brands that do not have scratch-and-text number because it cannot vouch for their efficacy and safety. By March, 2013, that is three months after, it will go onto antibiotics--same action will be taken on antibiotics without scratch-and-text number.
How scratch-and-text works
The scratch-and-text system is mobile authentication scheme using the cell phone in detecting the quality of pharmaceutical products in the various pharmaceutical outlets. NAFDAC is riding on the crest of GSM giants using cell phone to drive this initiative.
A consumer enters a pharmacy shop, picks the anti malarial drug and scratches like the cellular phone recharge card. Some PIN is revealed and they text it to code 38353. The reply comes back immediately saying OK. OK means you can go ahead and buy. FAILED means stop--don't buy.
A drug buyer who said he has tried the technology lamented that the reply sometimes comes as late as seven minutes after the text message is sent.
This means of checking drug counterfeiting was started in 2010. President Goodluck Jonathan represented by the minister of health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu launched it in Abuja.
Abubakar Jimoh, NAFDAC Deputy Director Public Relations and Protocol narrated his agency's efforts in this: "Right now we are experimenting it on anti malarials. It has been well tested and it has succeeded.
"By January 2nd, any anti malarial without scratch-and-text, Nigerians should reject it!
"Out of our checklist, only 30 have embraced the technology but there are many pharmaceutical companies in the country. We are taking it in sequence. We felt that anti malarial is often more counterfeited.
"This is revolutionary approach that DG NAFDAC [Dr Paul Orhii] has spearheaded and is teaching regulatory agencies all over the world. NAFDAC is invited from one international forum to another to share Nigeria's experiences in the use of cutting edge technology in tracking drug counterfeiting. African countries like Kenya and Sierra Leone have come to under study what NAFDAC is doing."
"We got to a point that NAFDAC was at the end in the game with counterfeiters. You take one measure, the counterfeiters take another measure to counter it," Jimoh explained.
According to the deputy director, NAFDAC's registration number and expiry date no more mean much as counterfeiters have perfected the act of imitating NAFDAC registration number with the use of sophisticated printing technology.
With this he said it has become apparently difficult for drug manufacturers to distinguish their own products from the counterfeiters'.
Jimoh noted that before now, drug counterfeiting was regarded as problem of the less developed countries but now counterfeit drugs forge their heads in developed countries through internet facilities.
Counterfeit drugs are purchased via internet. Because of this, recently, there is operation launched by the international police called Operation Panja. Operation Panja was targeted at drug counterfeiting through the internet.
Who bears the cost of scratch-and-text?
This technology is built right from where the drug is manufactured. The cost is borne by the manufacturers and technology providers. Even with zero kobo a drug buyer can connect.
Jimoh speaks on manufacturers' reactions: "When the technology was introduced, some manufacturers were apprehensive--even 10k was a lot of cost.
"We said no, this is a simple arithmetic. If for instance, the profit you are to make per annum is N100 million and you are telling us that counterfeiters are driving you out of market, you're almost folding up, because they have taken over the market, maybe instead of N100 million, you are making N20 million...Counterfeiters have taken N80 million of your profit.
"We are saying come and spare and invest N20 million in embracing this technology. When you invest N20 million and you are able to retrieve 60 percent of your profit, you have made another N40million. That is you have used N20 million to fetch N40 million. So why relax and leave counterfeiters to chase you out of market?"
Pharmacists, buyers unaware
However, our reporter who visited drug shops in Abuja the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) observed that most anti malarials do not have the scratch-and-text technology even as it is less than two months to NAFDAC's deadline. Out of over 20 antimalarial brands on shelves in Abuja, it is only Lonart (imported from India) that was seen with the scratch-and-text number. Similarly, many pharmacists and drug consumers were not aware that NAFDAC has issued this ultimatum.
Abdul-Rahman Momodu who is proprietor of Gaskiya Pharmacy in Wuse zone four said it will be difficult for NAFDAC to execute this because many efficacious drugs with over three-year shelf life are still available.
Momodu who apparently has not got NAFDAC's directive lamented that the regulatory agency has given licences to too many drug manufacturers. Because of this, there are numerous brands of one drug in the market making its identification difficult.
He also wondered why NAFDAC would approve importation of drugs that can be locally manufactured in Nigeria saying the importation makes regulation difficult. He cited analgesic like paracetamol as example of drug that is well produced by local companies yet it is imported.
He called for strengthening of local pharmaceutical companies so they can manufacture locally.
Similarly, a pharmacist in Utako said he is not aware of the directive. He doubted that the initiative will work.
On the question of too many licences to drug importers and manufacturers, a pharmacist who gave his name as Joe said NAFDAC cannot fail to licence any company that meets drug manufacturing/distribution conditions. "Mind you, it's a source of revenue to them. Then we don't have things working well in this country," he said.
On importation of drugs that can be locally produced, he said Nigerians are to blame. According to him, as Nigerians prefer patronizing foreign medical facilities, so also they prefer drugs produced outside the shores of the country.
Apparently, from reactions of pharmacists who are within Abuja, not far from NAFDAC's headquarters, this plan will fall through. Because one, many drug sellers who should be preparing to work in tandem with the new policy are ignorant of it.
Two, there are many anti malarials with long shelf life in the stores--what happens to such? Will they just be mopped up? Who pays for them?