Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The state-owned pharmaceutical company Ketlaphela is once again courting potential business partners and has issued a call for expressions of interest from parties to help it supply essential medicines to SA and the region.

The project has been in the pipeline for more than a decade, after the ANC resolved at its Polokwane elective conference in 2007 to set up a state-owned drug manufacturer.

It is also behind the target set by former president Jacob Zuma, who said in his 2016 state of the nation address that the state-owned pharmaceutical company would start supplying the Department of Health with antiretrovirals (ARVs) by the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The government initially planned to make active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) for ARVs, but had to put these plans on ice when its Swiss partner Lonza pulled out.

It then pursued a new model in which it would source and supply Ketlaphela-branded antiretrovirals to the department while it built manufacturing capacity. Now it is once again looking to manufacture APIs and finished products.

"We don’t want to be a distributor. We have to manufacture APIs [and final formulated products] on a scale to make them viable," Ketlaphela board chairman Ivan Radebe said.

"We are looking for a long-term partner who will share technical and manufacturing intellectual property," he said.

Ketlaphela aimed to make medicines targeting the region’s burden of disease and would initially aim at HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. At a later stage it would also make medicines for cancer and noncommunicable diseases, he said.

"We want to be competitive, and for that you need a basket of products," Radebe said.

Ketlaphela would initially target the public health sector in SA and then expand into the region, he said.

Radebe conceded that no supply agreement was yet in place with the department.

"There is a process in place. It takes time to conclude," he said.

Due to the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic, the South African government is the world’s biggest procurer of ARVs. Critics have warned that the government’s desire for its own manufacturing facility might increase the cost of treatment.

When asked whether Ketlaphela would compel the government to pay a premium for locally produced ARVs, Radebe said: "Of course we have to provide value, which can be defined in many ways, not only price. There are associated benefits that the country will derive when the country has its own state-owned pharmaceutical company. There are a whole lot of supply chain spin-offs.

"Pelchem is a shareholder of Ketlaphela and it has fantastic technology that could be applicable," he said.