The East African Community produces only less than 30 per cent of the medicines it needs while it imports the rest, a situation that must be reversed to ensure citizens easily access affordable drugs, officials have said.
This revelation was made last week during the launch of a 10-year strategic plan for pharmaceutical manufacturing at the EAC seat in Arusha, Tanzania.
The launch was held on the margins of the first regional vaccine production symposium.
"Vaccines are among a category of medicines that the region wholly depends on imports as currently there is no local production capacity. There is a vacuum and nature hates vacuum," said Kirunda Kivejinja, the chairperson of the EAC Council of Ministers.
Kivejinja is also Uganda's second deputy prime minister and minister for East African Community affairs.
"We are determined to reverse these negative trends and strengthen local production capacity," he said, noting that the 2017-2027 roadmap seeks to address this issue.
According to Christophe Bazivamo, the deputy EAC secretary-general for productive sectors, the action plan will guide the bloc towards evolving into an efficient and effective pharmaceutical industry.
The bloc views the local production of essential medicines as contributing to attaining sustainable development goal (SDG) 3.8 - achievement of universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health care services, and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all - in a more sustainable manner than through delivery of donated drugs to developing countries.
"I am happy to note that, as region, we have taken steps to implement some of the resolutions we made in Kigali (last year), particularly on the local production of vaccines among other medicines," Kivejinja.
Two pharmaceutical giants recently announced establishment of production plants in Rwanda: L.E.A.F. Pharmaceuticals LLC, a US-based global pharmaceutical company, and Cooper Pharma, a leading Moroccan pharmaceutical firm.
Both companies are expected to start production in 2019.
The good news, Kivejinja said, is that the EAC now has the highest projected pharmaceutical sales growth on the continent, estimated at 12.4 per cent over the next five years, "a fact which points to immense business and investment opportunities".
The pharmaceutical sector in the region is growing, officials said.
Total EAC pharmaceutical market - excluding South Sudan - is at $1.74 billion, according to official figures.
Kenya is reported to have the largest pharmaceutical market in the bloc; some $740 million, followed by Uganda, at $450 million, then Tanzania $400 million, Rwanda $ 100 million and Burundi $75 million.
The EAC heavily relies on pharmaceutical imports, especially for branded products.
It was noted that the market share of imports in Africa is estimated to be over 70 per cent, with a market share of generics estimated at 62 per cent in Kenya and other partner states.
In EAC, currently more than 50 per cent of pharmaceuticals imported into the region come from Asia, particularly from India and China.
In the bloc's action plan document, an overview of therapeutic lines not being supplied by local firms in the region lists alimentary tract and metabolism, blood products and blood-forming organs, the cardiovascular system, as well as muscle relaxants, among others.
It is reported that local firms in EAC mainly produce pharmaceutical simple dosage forms such as plain tablets, hard capsules, lotions and suspensions.
Bazivamo said: "Our regional plan is well aligned with the African Union's pharmaceutical manufacturing plan for Africa endorsed in 2012; and sustainable development goals with regard to goal three (good health) and goal nine (industry, innovation and infrastructure)".
The German government has provided, through GIZ, technical and financial support to the development and implementation of the regional action plan.
Dr Kirsten Focken, the GIZ programme manager, said: "Governments in East Africa need to support investors who have already set up pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities through prioritising procurement of drugs manufactured within the region."
The new goal should ideally be to grow the market share of locally manufactured medicines from the current average of 30 per cent to over 50 percent by 2027, he said
"This will support job creation and it's the most sustainable way to grow investors' appetite for setting up new factories in the region."