A Dh25 million high-tech laboratory is to be built to test the authenticity and quality of drugs sold in pharmacies.
New laboratory to test suspect drugs
SHARJAH // A Dh25 million (US$6.8 million) high-tech laboratory will be built to test drugs sold in pharmacies to determine whether they are illegal, counterfeit or potentially dangerous, as part of the Government's drive to tighten controls on chemists. The Ministry of Health laboratory will be available for use by health authorities and police in all the emirates and will be "bigger and better" than anything that exists at the moment, according to the ministry.
It has drawn up the plans as part of its strategy to strengthen and rigorously enforce the rules governing the way pharmacies operate and to improve the safety of the drugs on sale. The ministry, which has jurisdiction over health services in the northern emirates, is taking a tougher stance on pharmacies caught selling illegal or counterfeit drugs. The laboratory will be built in Sharjah and house state-of-the-art technology to test the ingredients and possible effects of drugs.
Prescription-only and over-the-counter drugs can be tested before or after registration, or if they are the subject of complaints from members of the public or health professionals. The US Center for Medicine in the Public Interest estimates that global counterfeit drug sales will reach US$75 billion (Dh275 billion) in the next two years. Dr Amin al Amiri, executive director of medical practices and licensing at the Ministry of Health, said the new laboratory would be "another way to protect the public's health from dangerous drugs".
"We want to control everything in a stricter way as part of the ministry's strategy. Pharmacies are a key part of looking after people's health and we want them to be operating in the best possible manner, with only safe and efficient drugs on sale," he said. "This new laboratory will be much better than anything we already have. It will have a number of different departments with enhanced services, very efficient laboratory facilities and much more manpower."
Dr Amiri said the plans had not been finalised but the laboratory had been given the go-ahead by the health minister, Humaid Mohammed al Qutami. It is expected to take two years to build and the ministry will be recruiting new staff. "We have a two-year programme to get the lab up and running," said Dr Amiri. "The programme incorporates various other measures, such as more efficient and more regular inspections by the ministry's dedicated team and a quick response to any violations found."
The laboratory, which will be available for use by any of the emirate's police forces, "will be enough to deal with a lot of different types of inquiries. We will be investigating drugs which have been reported by the public, the police or pharmacies themselves as being possible counterfeits," said Dr Amiri. It would also be looking more closely "into products which are going through the registration process. We do not want to put anyone's health at risk".
Products which are sold in pharmacies or prescribed by GPs or hospitals must registered with the ministry on the General Sale List (GSL). If pharmacies are found to be selling unregistered, counterfeit or smuggled drugs they could have their licence revoked or be fined. The registration process for new drugs can take up to 18 months, according to some distributors. Products on the GSL include homoeopathic and herbal remedies.
The ministry sent out a letter earlier this year to more than 1,100 pharmacies, demanding they carried out monthly inspections to identify possible breaches of the law. If they failed to do so they risked having their licences revoked. As part of the stricter strategy, the ministry's Drug Control Department (DCD) closed down eight pharmacies in the northern emirates in May and June for violating rules.
A draft of the DCD's National Pharmacy Programme in the UAE for 2008-2010 says low returns on medicines have led to illegal sales in many pharmacies. It is estimated that about 70 per cent of pharmacists sell antibiotics over the counter. The Ministry of Justice and various health bodies are finalising proposals for a law that will increase as much as ten-fold the maximum penalties for making or selling counterfeit drugs. The current maximum fine of Dh10,000 will be increased to Dh1m. The prison term will also be increased, to a maximum of 10 years. The role of the new laboratory in carrying out more stringent checks on products going through the registration process has met with some objections. Khaled Hamza, who registers and markets products in the UAE on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, said the registration process was already too lengthy. If the new laboratory was to work efficiently it had to employ more staff.
"I do understand that they want to test drugs thoroughly but it already takes a long time," said Mr Hamza, director of Medysinal in Dubai. "It may encourage some people to leave the UAE market and go elsewhere, somewhere like Saudi Arabia. They will need much more staff if these stricter rules are to actually work well. They will not if they simply make an already difficult job more difficult." Full details of the laboratory will be decided in the coming months and the Health Ministry hopes building will start by the end of the year.