The humble beginings to this cooperation came from the mind of Profffesor Senaka Bibile, the renowned pharmacologist of Sri Lanka who showed the government the need for a pharmaceutical cooperation which gives the best products for the lowest prices. By 1987, the SPMC was established with Japanese funds, which is now the biggest pharmaceutical producer for Sri Lanka. The journey however, was not a walk in the park with great challenges and trepidations. But now the SPMC stands tall with pride with the leadership of its chairman, Dr. Sayuru Samarasurendra.
Following is an interview we had with Dr. Sayuru Samarasurendra focusing on the challenges in producing the best drugs with the least cost possible and the challenges, which comes by it.
Give us a brief introduction about the cooperation and its journey.
This cooperation started in 1987 with Japanese funds with a workforce of 20 people. Currently, the production is twice as large when compared with 2014 and we expect to make it larger by mid-2018. We took a ‘JICA’ fund of 1.2 billion to develop this cooperation. All of these drugs are produced in one factory and we want to expand it further.
We had a profit of Rs.214 million in 2015 and it was increased to Rs.406 million by 2016/2017. We achieved record sales during last year of 3.1 million, which is the highest in our history. I cannot take all the credit for this achievement. We have a great work force whom are well experienced and the credit of this achievement should go to them. We are planning a system to provide every drug that is used in Sri Lanka and to export them further. According to my plans, one fourth of the factory should be given to the private sector and for the exports. I always give prominence to quality. Then, we can export our products to other countries without any fear. We opened three new factories during the past 2 years. Usually it takes 2 years to build a fully equipped factory, which is not an easy task. That is why we have targeted 2020.
We saved imports worth of 1.5 billion during last year from the newly constructed factories. The biggest challenge that we have is the mafia in the country who import pharmaceuticals. They don’t want us to produce our own drugs and say that the cost of producing drugs in the country is high. However, we cannot focus on the profits alone. By created high quality factories, we attain the latest technology with recognized job opportunities. This will solve the unemployment crisis along with foreign fund drainage. Even though the price would be a bit high, the citizens would not have to bear the burden as the government buys all of the drugs.
What are the plans to increase production?
We constructed a factory in Horana which makes antibiotics. A Sri Lankan made this with a big risk. No one believed that such a factory would be possible in Sri Lanka but he did it nonetheless. Later we found out that only one third will be needed to meet the demands of the country. When we discussed this with him, I told him to keep the cost in par without exceeding the profits so that the SPMC could buy the rest. Then he focused on exporting the antibiotics to foreign firms and currently he is having discussions in Europe to export these products. This is a good industry. We need some fearless investors. At present we our working in coalition with the private sectors as well. In addition, there is popular misconception among people that this industry produce lots of harmful chemicals as by products, which are thrown to the environment. If we look at the Kelani river, how much dye factories are polluting the river? But, Pharmaceuticals won’t work like that. Latest experiments show that the water after production is drinkable. A normal person would not understand this.
We constructed a manufacturing zone in Sri Lanka bringing all of the factories together. We also plan to construct 17 factories in Welipenna with the worlds latest standards.
Why we haven’t been able to call the drug by its original name?
All of these concepts are in the pharmaceutical policy of Prof. Senaka Bibile. No health minister could do this, until now. The present health minister executed this plan. We planned to provide the drugs with its original name because of the price differences of the same drugs. But, the minister couldn’t do this. Some doctors said that it was in vain to provide cheap drugs after operations. So there are drugs with high and low qualities in the market. We cannot test the quality of each and every drug imported to Sri Lanka which is why I stress the point to produce our drugs. We would succeed in this by 2020.
Usually we check everything before a company imports from their registration documents onwards. However, we cannot test the quality. There are no laboratories to check each and every imported drug. Nevertheless, we are constructing a laboratory with Chinese funds and when it gets completed we wouldn’t have any issue. But it doesn’t mean that all of the imported drugs are of low quality, it is the reason why we couldn’t call the drug by its original name.
There is a complex technology here, which a normal human cannot comprehend. Can we get closer to that?
This field cannot be learnt within a day and lots are scared to enter this field because of the lack of technology. However, we get consultations from the worlds’ leading doctors and counsellors and we bring this technology to the country with their support. This cooperation also has a research and development segment. I always tell them that I need five new items of drugs each year. The workforce spend their whole time in developing various drugs. We should always try and foresee the future and the drugs which will be needed and produce them. Even the drugs have generations, which changes quite quickly! If we could not incorporate new technology, we cannot go ahead with the world. If we did not do this we would be unfair to the state hospitals as well.
The public have more faith with imported items than local items that are higher in cost. Your thoughts?
There are two types of drugs of the government. Lots think that SPC is the drugs that the government produce. But SPC drugs are imported. Only we, the SPMC produces the drugs of the government. We give a great deal of attention to quality standards. Not even 1% of the drugs we made were rejected during the past years. Currently, there are 11 drug producers in Sri Lanka and we are the biggest producer. We can give a 100% guarantee to the public of the drugs that are produced in the country. In reality, when someone sees the packaging of our drugs they don’t feel like drinking it. So, I made a small change and renewed the packaging of our products. Now the people do not recognize that these drugs are made in Sri Lanka and they buy them.
There was a particular antibiotic which costed Rs.70. The minister told them to reduce the price to Rs.30 and they refused. I did a small research and realised that it costs only Rs.11 to produce that drug and 40 million units of those antibiotics are sold in state hospitals. I too take the resources from the same source. Some companies produce only three types of drugs but spend 350 to 400 million in advertising. One day, this country should come to standard to produce drugs with the highest quality.
How much of drugs does the SPMC produce?
We produce 57 drugs. When I was appointed, only 500 million pills were produced. But we exceeded 2 billion last year and we plan to exceed 4 billion by the end of this year. The plan to sell 1 billion of pills to the private sector and the rest to the government. Also, the SPMC covers all of the essential drugs such as the drugs used for high blood pressure and cholesterol. In addition, we plan to diversify and specialize the new factories which are coming up. Each segment would specialise in 5 or 10 items.
Pharmaceutical production is a new massive field. What are the steps taken to motivate and encourage the human capital of the company?
As a government cooperation we are in the B grade. However, when we consider the profits we have the potential of an A grade cooperation. The only drawback is that an A grade cooperation must need at least 1000 employees. But we run the whole cooperation with just 200 employees. We have the most experienced work force in the field. However, there is deficit of the workers joining in our new factories. Therefore, I started an institute that offers courses about the production of drugs at Bulathsinhala. These courses will offer insights in pharmacy management, drug production, research and development and so on. The students can work in the factories once they complete the course. There hasn’t been such an institute in South Asia.
How do you plan to develop research and development?
Currently we are trying to produce morphine with the CINTEC cooperation, which cannot be produced everywhere. The minister has proposed this to the cabinet. We can produce these drugs with the support of the Army as well. Furthermore, our research had indicated that some seaweeds could produce cancer medications. However, we would need the support of the ministry of science and technology to pursue these potential prospects.
How about the support of the Government?
All of these are concepts of the minister of Health. There is a great backing up by the President as well who wanted to make these decisions while he was the minister of health. On the other hand, there is a great attack to us by some sides of the private sector. Anyone could understand the situation they will face when we produce drugs worth of 65 million in the country, halting all of the imports.
Ashika Brahmana / Pics by Ajith Senevirathna