What would happen to the people of the East African Community if donors who fund most regional programmes on malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS decided, overnight, that they are no longer giving us medicines? The question was posed Monday, April 19, by Jean Baptiste Havugimana, the EAC director for productive sectors, while shedding light on the status of the regional pharmaceutical industry during a meeting in Kigali where local stakeholders shared views on how to improve a related draft legislation. A team of members of the East African Legislative Assembly are gathering inputs from stakeholders so as to polish the EAC Pharmaceuticals Bill which aims to, among others, promote access to essential medicines and facilitate the promotion and development of the regional pharmaceutical industry. Havugimana listed high donor funding for killer diseases and out-of-pocket expenditure for medicines as well as the need for better access to healthcare through social health protection programmes as part of the regions health sector context. On average, only 25 percent of the East African Community population is covered by some kind of social health protection mechanism, Havugimana said. MP Francine Rutazana, a Rwandan who initiated the idea of the Bill in December 2019, told The New Times she hopes that after the ongoing public hearings, the regional Parliament could pass the Bill during the June sitting. “The Bill builds on the African Union model law on medical products regulation which seeks to harmonise regulation of medical products within member states,” the lawmaker said. “The objective is to facilitate access to essential medicines in the Community; promote pharmaceuticals produced within the Community; promote good manufacturing practices and quality standards in producing pharmaceuticals; promote preference for pharmaceuticals produced in Community during public procurement and for related matters.” Ange Noella Mugeni, a registration and licensing officer at the Rwanda National Pharmacy Council, told The New Times that it is a very important legislation that will enhance her agency’s work. “Besides creating many new jobs there is the element of protection of public health, through the increase and availability of essential medicine which will be crucial in improving public health in general,” she said. “This legal framework will curb fraudulent drugs too.” Addressing the meeting through videoconference, Christophe Bazivamo, the EAC Deputy Secretary General in charge of Productive and Social Sectors, hoped the session would gather as much stakeholder views as is required to move the Bill forward. Our population is growing and so is our need and market for medicines and health care. Our partner states share a common diseases burden profile where both communicable and non-communicable diseases continue to grow as the population grows, Bazivamo said. Bazivamo noted that despite growth in the EAC pharmaceutical markets, “we still have high dependency on imported pharmaceutical products.” He said: “Today, EAC partner states import about 70 per cent to 90 per cent of the medicines that the region’s population consumes. It is interesting to note that the pharmaceutical sector development is one of the priority sectors of the EAC according to the EAC Industrialization policy; and the region aspires to develop the pharmaceutical industry as part of the regions’, social and political integration agenda.” Bazivamo said the region recognizes the strategic importance of developing local production of pharmaceutical products in promoting access to affordable quality essential medicines. So far, it is noted, locally produced medicines cover only 66 per cent of disease conditions with the region lacking the capacity to manufacture advanced formulations for some diseases conditions. It is for these reasons that the region has made reducing its’ dependence on pharmaceutical imports a priority, Bazivamo said, also noting that development of the local pharmaceutical sector has public health dimension and strong economic justification. He noted that locally manufactured medicines lead to health system strengthening and higher supply reliability of medicines. “Local manufacturers have better supply chain mechanisms in place than importers. Local production leads to cost reduction and better quality and improves the reliability of supply, market surveillance, and sustainability and increase access to medicines especially to rural areas,” he said. Over 20,000 jobs “From the economic perspective, local pharmaceutical production leads to job creation and capacity building, technology and know-how transfer, among others,” Bazivamo said. Giving a snapshot of the contribution of the sector, Havugimana put the pharmaceutical industry’s projections for 2027 at 12 per cent growth point to 21, 933 jobs in the region and annual training of 800 students and interns. Opportunities for local manufacturers are on an increase due to a young, growing population with an expanding middle class and the increasing non-communicable diseases burden and continued prevalence of infectious diseases, Bazivamo said. The EAC Regional Manufacturing Plan of Action’s main objective is to evolve an efficient and effective regional pharmaceutical manufacturing industry that can supply safe, quality and efficacious medicines to local, regional and international markets. “For this to be achieved the region need an enabling legal and regulatory environment and frameworks. This is where the Pharmaceutical Bill comes in,” Bazivamo said.