“The manufacture of medicines is a national security issue, and is crucial for advancing the Egyptian economy,” Mahmoud Al-Metini, president of Ain Shams University, told participants at the second edition of Al-Ahram Pharmaceutical Conference (APHC) held earlier this week.
APHC Chair Al-Metini added that developing the industry had become an urgent priority in the wake of the unprecedented global challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and providing safe and effective medicines to ensure better health outcomes is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and a core ambition of Egypt’s Vision 2030.
The two-day conference kicked off on 16 October by reviewing the challenges and risks the industry faces and the measures needed to foster scientific research and facilitate technology transfer.
Egypt already has the infrastructure to develop and manufacture new drugs. There are 159 licensed drug factories, and 80 more are being built. In the first half of 2021 Egypt produced LE40 billion worth of medicines, seven per cent more than the year before, of which $250 million worth were exported.
According to Al-Metini, Egypt’s pharmaceutical industry ranks among Africa’s top five. Egypt also has research centres keen to participate with the international scientific community in developing new drugs. Throughout the APHC, attendees stressed the need to implement Law 214/2020 which regulates medical research and trials. Though approved by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, it still lacks executive regulations.
“The Middle East currently spends $500 million on clinical research, providing 400 new job opportunities annually,” said Al-Metini.
Research is core to localising the pharmaceutical industry in Egypt, said Hisham Al-Ghazali, head of the research centre at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Medicine, and much remains to be done to facilitate effective communication between clinical research centres.
Though Egypt already produces 94 per cent of its drug needs, reported Riad Armanious, the CEO of EVA pharmaceutical group, researchers still need technical support, particularly when it comes to pre-clinical trials.
As part of its efforts to roll out universal health insurance, Egypt has been scaling up its healthcare infrastructure, upgrading clinics and hospitals and constructing new health units. Universal health insurance is expected to cost LE210 billion ($13.38 billion) annually once the entire population is enrolled.
Localising the pharmaceutical industry requires mechanisms for strategic partnerships with global firms, argued Amr Mamdouh, chair of Egypt’s City of Medicine, aka GYPTO Pharma. The city is a hub for the manufacture of medicines and vaccines, occupying 180,000 square metres in Khankah, Qalioubiya north of Cairo.
Mohamed Mustafa, Ego Pharmaceuticals’ regional director for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, pointed out that Egypt is one of the fastest growing pharmaceutical markets in the Middle East and North Africa. The City of Medicine is key to achieving drug security and producing effective and safe medicines, and is being prepped not only to become a regional hub for international companies but also to pivot towards biotechnological industries.
Yousri Nawwar, Pfizer’s country manager for Egypt and Sudan and head of the Egyptian Society for Drug Production and Research (ESDPR), addressed the opportunities and challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry in Egypt and the localisation of drug manufacturing.
Nawwar underlined how President Al-Sisi had singled out developing the drug industry as central to Egypt’s Vision 2030, not only as a powerful economic engine, but as core to improving public health, a major goal of the Decent Life initiative.
ESDPR comprises 22 international pharmaceutical companies operating in Egypt. It seeks to consolidate strategic partnerships across the pharmaceutical sector and provide the latest treatments.
Covid-19, said Nawwar, had lent impetus to collaborations on research between pharmaceutical companies which are currently developing 4,100 medicines to combat communicable and noncommunicable diseases.
The ESDPR is committed to working with the government to effect policies and draft legislation to develop the pharmaceutical industry.
The government has repeatedly increased the budget for healthcare, said Minister of Finance Mohamed Maait. Allocations for children’s drugs and milk formulas increased by 43 per cent in 2021-22, and support for health insurance programmes had increased to the tune of LE1.2 billion.
Maait reiterated the words of President Al-Sisi during the UN meeting on comprehensive healthcare in 2019, saying that governments and development partners should work on finding quick and efficient solutions to boosting healthcare services which are essential to creating decent lives.
Comprehensive healthcare can only be achieved when access to medicines and to technological advances is available for all peoples, said Maait.
The coronavirus pandemic had underlined not only the need for solid and flexible healthcare systems capable of enduring economic downturns, Maait noted, but also how drug manufacturing is key to countries’ national security.
Maait pointed out that Article 18 of the 2014 constitution stipulates that every citizen has the right to access quality healthcare, to which end the government was pushing ahead with a universal health insurance system.
In March 2020, following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, LE100 billion — or two per cent of GDP — was allocated to mitigating the impact of the crisis, of which LE16.5 billion was allocated to the healthcare sector.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly