Picture: 123RF/SERGEI BABENKO
Picture: 123RF/SERGEI BABENKO

The SA pharmaceutical industry is expected to deliver R73bn in sales by 2025, according to Invest SA’s Fact Sheet published by the department of trade & industry. That’s a significant increase on the predicted estimate of R51bn for this year alone, ensuring that the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most actively growing sectors in SA, and a huge contributor to the country’s bottom line. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen pharmaceutical companies around the world in a race to develop an effective and safe vaccine, putting their research and development divisions under considerable pressure to find a "silver bullet" and placing them – and the clinical trial process itself – under the microscope.

More than ever, pharmaceutical companies are under pressure to accurately inform and report on the status of their vaccine research. However, historically there has been a gap between the media and pharmaceutical industry with the former accusing the latter of a lack of transparency. 

The role that the pharmaceutical industry has played in supporting the SA economy during the Covid crisis and strategies to bridge the gap between the pharmaceutical industry and the media was the focus of a recent Business Day Dialogues digitised conversation, in partnership with Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of SA (Ipasa). 

Ipsasa COO Bada Pharasi shared details around Ipasa’s 2019 Footprint Study, which highlighted the contributions being made by the pharmaceutical industry locally. The study found that the department of health and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) licensed 276 companies to manufacture, import, export and distribute pharmaceuticals. It also found that R1bn is planned for investment in upcoming and ongoing clinical trials, estimating that over the past five years, the pharmaceutical industry has spent about R2.95bn in SA. 

The industry has initiatives in place to bring the cost of medicines down, and makes a significant contribution in terms of its investment into knowledge, skills and technology transfer, said Pharasi. 

Glaudina Loots, health innovation director at the department of science and technology, said one of her priorities around the development of a Covid vaccine is to ensure that any potential vaccine is safe to use on HIV-positive patients. Revealing that SA already manufactures some vaccines locally, she said the pharmaceutical industry is the fifth-largest contributor to the SA’s trade deficit. The Footprint Study estimates that the value of locally produced drugs will reach R9bn by 2021.

Accurate medical reporting is more important than ever given the pandemic. However, there continues to be friction in relaying or portraying vital information. 

Tamar Kahn, science, health and education writer at Business Day and Financial Mail, said short news cycles could create challenges for journalists in getting access to pharmaceutical companies about their investment into research and development or the actual cost of producing products or vaccines. 

Despite conceding that credit should go to where it is due given that the pharmaceutical industry has been working at speed to develop a Covid vaccine, Mia Malan, Bhekisisa editor-in-chief, agreed that transparency can be a challenge of the industry – pointing out that secrecy erodes trust. Given that many governments have provided funding for the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, she said she is routing for more transparency to better the relationship between the pharma industry and media reporting.

Ipasa president Thulani Nhlaniki said both the association and the industry was cognisant of the need to build better trust with both the media and the public. 

Watch the full event event below: 

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