Venezuela’s “Paralyzed” Pharma Firms Point Finger at Forex Controls

By: Sabrina Martín - @SabrinaMartinR - Apr 14, 2015, 9:21 am

EspañolWorkers at Pfizer, the largest pharmaceuticals company operating in Venezuela, downed tools to protest on April 8 over severe shortages of the raw materials needed to manufacture medicines.

Over 500 jobs at Pfizer are at risk amid a possible paralyzation of a factory in Venezuela.
Over 500 jobs at Pfizer are at risk amid a possible paralyzation of a factory in Venezuela. (El Carabobeño)

Pfizer employees reported that the company is only producing at 40 percent of capacity, and that the only medicine being produced on a large scale is Atamel — a brand of acetaminophen desperately needed in a country where the chikungunya virus has become a national epidemic.

Ali Mora, secretary general of the Pfizer workers’ trade union, told press that the number of pharmaceuticals being produced by factories had fallen by 60 percent.

“We had a diversified range of 80 products, but now we’re barely producing five. The majority of the rest are being made in Europe,” Mora said.

The Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation (Fefarven) also sounded the alarm on the following day about national shortages. Fefarven President Freddy Ceballos reported that Caracas is facing 60 percent shortages in supply of medicines, rising to 70 percent scarcity in the interior of the country. Ceballos explained that the problem was due to the lack of liquid foreign currency reserves, crucial to import the goods needed for domestic production.

Ceballos told the PanAm Post that the situation facing the pharmaceutical sector is grave, and argued that if currency reserves weren’t made available soon, the supply of medicines to meet national needs would dwindle to almost zero.

“We call on the Venezuelan state to prioritize the awarding of reserves to the entire pharmaceutical sector. Laboratories clearly need materials to be able to produce. They have to find a way of stimulating production,” he said.

The industry representative reported that the last time it received foreign currency was at the end of 2014. He warned that “as long as the government doesn’t make available the necessary dollars in a planned way, the same problems will continue.”

Ceballos further argued that even if the government awarded the necessary reserves today, it would take between three and four months for the market to return to normal, adding that the Health Ministry should establish closer communications with Cencoex — the state body that hands out reserves to industries.

Systemic Failure

The Ferfarven chief reported shortages in medication for pain relief, blood pressure, cardiac problems, and respiratory conditions, as well as multivitamins for pregnant women and contraceptives: “We’ve arrived at the extreme of seeing parents looking for contraceptives for their children,” he added.

Sixty percent of medicines are missing from shelves in Caracas, Venezuela, rising to 70 percent in the interior of the country.
Sixty percent of medicines are missing from shelves in Caracas, Venezuela, rising to 70 percent in the interior of the country. (Bancaynegocios)

“It’s necessary to realize that all medicines are important, regardless of whether they’re for rare illnesses. The whole world has the right to secure the medicines that it needs.”

“We’re also very worried about the supplies sector. What good is medicine if you don’t have the supplies to administer it intravenously?” asked Ceballos, highlighting a “grave” shortages of gauzes, syringes, and catheters, among other products.

Ceballos called on recently appointed Health Minister Henry Ventura to revise the ministry’s operations, following confirmation from the state comptroller’s office about the existence of “huge numbers of expired medicines in the country” due to flawed purchasing procedures.

He also emphasized the “urgent” need to update statistics relevant to the medicines market. “Epidemiological reports are essentially not being updated at all; the government should carry out a study of what are the existing illnesses and what are the necessary medicines,” Ceballos argued.

State Projects Paralyzed

Venezuelan daily El Nacional meanwhile reported on Thursday, April 9, that government projects to install four expensive pharmaceutical factories in the country have barely got off the ground.

The plants, designed to substitute imports, are to be constructed through agreements with Cuba, Colombia, and Portugal. While resources have been assigned and government funds paid out, all of them are yet to be built.

Carlos Walter, director the Center for Development Studies (Cendes), confirmed that deals signed by the Venezuelan government with Colombia in December 2012 had failed to materialize, and had instead been substituted for a pharmaceuticals factory in Yaracuy state.

The Shanghai Zhongla & Trading Company delivered manufacturing equipment for the plant after the Venezuelan government paid over US$800,000, but the factory was never built. At the close of 2014, government figures report that raw materials to be used in the manufacture of medicines at the plant worth over $7.5 million remained in storage, and all had expiry dates of 2014 and 2015.

According to Walter, Venezuela has also signed a deal with China to build a factory for intravenous fluids and serums, but government records show that the project is barely in the feasibility study stage.

The Cendes director added that another deal with Cuba, to build a pharmaceutical complex dedicated to the production of essential medicines, is yet to be honored.

“In 2011, they started moving earth in the location where it was going to built at Yare in Miranda State, and they approved the financing of the project with resources supplied by [national development funds] Fonden and the Independence Fund, for an unknown amount,” Walter explained.

“The objective of this firm is to produce 125 essential pharmaceutical products. There’s been no official information on progress in the project since 2013,” he concluded.

A fourth agreement is included in the catalog of failed projects: a deal with Portugal to build a factory for cephalosporins and penicillin, two kinds of essential antibiotics.

The plant, with a price tag of $96.6 million, was due to be completed in 2014, but in 2013 it became the responsibility of social welfare program Misión Barrio Adentro Foundation. The factory is yet to be completed.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

Sabrina Martín Sabrina Martín

Sabrina Martín is a Venezuelan journalist, commentator, and editor based in Valencia with experience in corporate communication. Follow @SabrinaMartinR.

Ecuador Breaks the Ice on Drug Legalization in Landmark Bill

By: Rebeca Morla - @RebecaMorla - Apr 14, 2015, 8:30 am

EspañolA new bill in Ecuador seeks to change the public-policy paradigm on drug use in the country. On Thursday, April 9, legislators held a historic first debate of the Organic Law on Comprehensive Drug Prevention in the National Assembly. The project, promoted by the ruling party PAIS Alliance, was introduced to the chamber by Carlos Velasco, head of the Commission of the Right to Health. The bill aims for "comprehensive drug prevention, by establishing a legal and institutional framework to address drug use, and the regulation of the substances that are subject to control." It stipulates over 100 substances that would be "controlled," including alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, illegal drugs, and other industrial substances such as solvents which are also used as drugs. In perhaps the most landmark provisions, however, the 26-article document proposes the creation of a Technical Secretariat of Drugs, under the control of the president, to "regulate and control the activities related to the import, export, cultivation, production, marketing, distribution, transportation, and use," of the aforementioned substances. Those interested in handling or using the substances provided by the bill would have to register with the agency, although domestic cultivation or manufacture would only be allowed for purposes of "research, experimentation, or training." The penalties for non-compliance with the provisions of the document vary between fines or forfeiture of the substances. However, the bill as it stands would be a major change to the existing Law of Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which punishes both cultivation and sale with between 12 and 16 years in prison. Velasco emphasized that Ecuadorian legislation on the matter passed in the 1980s designed to criminalize consumption had tried and failed to make the problem invisible. By contrast, the legislator hailed the 2008 Constitution, which defines drug use as a public health issue, paving the way for a dramatic shift in public policy. In this vein, Velasco further wrote on his Facebook page that it is "absurd" to address the "drug phenomenon" in a repressive manner, "as was done in the 80s and 90s, where prison was the only place for a drug consumer." "It's necessary to establish a comprehensive system of prevention of drug use," stretching "from the educational phase to rehabilitation and reintegration," he added. Opposition Spark Up Debate Nevertheless, the PAIS proposals failed to convince many legislators. Ramiro Aguilar, an independent member of the Assembly, delivered fierce criticism of the bill, which he branded "preposterous" and poorly prepared. Aguilar, despite admitting being personally in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana, identified glaring gaps in the information provided by the bill, and the failure to provide key definitions of concepts or define the amounts under discussion. "If the intention of this parliament is to legalize the sale of marijuana, let's do it right," he said, arguing that the decision should be made directly by the people in a referendum. Opposition legislator María Cristina Kronfle meanwhile argued that the bill is too liberal, and would in fact promote the use and sale of drugs. Moreover, she complained that the bill, introduced in December 2014, has been treated with greater urgency than other legislative proposals presented before it. PAIS Assemblywoman María Alejandra Vicuña rose to the defense of the bill, drawing a dichotomy between a prohibitionist model which supports the war on drugs, and the "model of risk and harm reduction, which is based on the premise that it is impossible to completely eliminate drug use." Vicuña asserted that the latter is the most effective way to address the "social phenomenon of drugs," a problem for Ecuadorian society "that must be treated from a health perspective." After three hours of full session, the debate in the National Assembly was suspended, but is expected to be resumed in the coming weeks. Edited by Laurie Blair.

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